Shaun Cassidy is an artist in residence at the McColl Center for Visual Art in Charlotte, North Carolina. He led a one-hour creativity exercise during a workshop that I attended recently. During the activity he said that "seemingly negative parameters can actually help you to be more innovative."
Cassidy’s perspective is supported by significant evidence. Social theorist, Barry Schwartz, in his book, The Paradox of Choice, explains that when we have too many choices, we struggle to make decisions. He encourages us to “learn to love constraints” because “as the number of choices we face increases, freedom of choice becomes a tyranny of choice. Routine decisions take so much time and attention that it becomes difficult to get through the day. In circumstances like this, we should learn to view limits on the possibilities that we face as liberating not constraining.”
Ironically, more options don't liberate us, they paralyze us. As Erich Fromm explained in Escape from Freedom, “people are beset not by a lack of opportunity but by a dizzying abundance of it.” It is counter-intuitive, but limitations, not options, are what liberate us.
Similarly, behavioral economist, Dan Ariely, argues that the common strategy of “keeping our options open” is a bad one and that we should “consciously start closing” some of those options. This is true because “they draw energy and commitment” away from activities that promise greater success.
Our weaknesses and limitations are not bad because they rule out options for us and make it easier for us to focus on the areas where we can be truly successful. Limitations are liberating.
Erik Weihenmayer is the first and only blind man to reach the summit of Mount Everest. “When asked if anything was possible, Weihenmayer answered, ‘No, there are limits. I mean, I can't drive a car. But there are good questions and bad questions in life. The bad questions are what if questions. What if I were smarter, or stronger? What if I could see? Those are dead-end questions. A good question is, ‘how do I do as much as I can with what I have?’” Similarly, John Wooden said “do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.” As managers, we need to acknowledge our employees’ limitations and make sure that we don’t let what they cannot do interfere with what they can do.