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Green Eggs and Handcuffs: How Constraints Drive Creativity

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Imagine you were challenged to write a book using a limited selection of words. You could use them as many times as needed to tell your story, but you’d be limited to the number you agreed upon. How many would you need? One thousand? Challenging, but certainly doable. Five hundred? A little tougher, but still within the realm of reason. One hundred? Much harder, but still not impossible. How does fifty sound? Impossible because the constraints would be too difficult to overcome.

Not only could it be done, but it HAS been done. As a matter of fact, a book produced under those exact circumstances was widely considered one of the greatest children’s books of all time. In the late 1950s, a man named Bennett Cerf challenged Dr. Seuss to that exact challenge. As Dr. Seuss’ editor, Cerf bet the renowned author of such classics as The Lorax and How The Grinch Stole Christmas! that he couldn’t write a book using fifty words or less. The book inspired by that challenge, Green Eggs & Ham, is a masterpiece. It doesn’t matter if you read it on a train. It doesn’t matter if you read it in the rain. In fact, a poll of teachers by the National Education Association ranked Green Eggs & Ham as the 4th best children’s book ever written.

In a blog post written for the Harvard Business Review titled, “Necessity, not Scarcity, is the Mother of Invention,” Teresa Amabile and Steve Kramer explored the effect of resources on innovation. The conclusion they drew was that there are two types of constraints. Those that needlessly smother creativity and innovation, and those that focus the attention and resolve. Amabile and Kramer identified two types of constraints they felt aided creativity. The first variety defines the challenge and provides goals. Instead of staring at a blank piece of paper, this type of constraint establishes parameters in which to create. The second variety provides a “challenging need.” Amabile and Kramer used the example of the creativity displayed by NASA scientists in their effort to bring home the Apollo 13 astronauts.

The lesson is simple. While some types of constraints may offer some creativity-inducing abilities, it isn’t wise to starve creativity in order to feed it. Think back to the opening example of Green Eggs & Ham. The challenges faced by Dr. Seuss are perfect examples of both types of positive constraints. The word count provided a clear challenge and goals. And the bet provided the urgency, because no one likes to lose. Not even Dr. Seuss.

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