by Gregg Levoy

Limitations can certainly impede growth, but they can also induce it.


  • Limitations can impede growth, but they can also be an invaluable part of activating it.
  • It pays to frame limitations as creative challenges rather than blame them for holding you back.
  • We all have limitations, but what matters is how we convert them into our own creations.

I recently drove by a school near my home whose motto was “A Future Without Limits.” I get the optimism behind this slogan, but I don’t buy it. Not only is it unrealistic to expect no limits or limitations in life, but it overlooks their value.

Limitations can certainly impede growth—and there are real limitations in the world: poverty, discrimination, disability, financial burden, lack of access to education, and obstacles both external and internal—but limitations can also induce growth. Deadlines get work done. Setbacks can become breakthroughs. People who lose one of their senses often find that the others are heightened. In environments with little water, plants develop spines. The smaller the animal, the more fruitfully it multiplies. The colder the clime, the beefier the inhabitants. The more you compress a spring, the more strength you build in it.

Poet e.e. cummings, while incarcerated in a French jail cell during World War II, wrote a book called the enormous room. The brain is confined to a nutshell but look at its reach. And the entire universe, we’re told, was once squeezed into a space too small to see, but the explosion it triggered is still taking place, the cosmos continually expanding.

Closer to home, the limits and boundaries parents set for their children can help them feel safely contained and cared for, and those we set for our work lives can help us prioritize our time and ward off burnout. Sometimes, aliveness itself is served by narrowing your focus, cutting things out of your life in deference to things that matter more, and choosing to hone your energies on certain endeavors at the cost of others. It’s like pruning a tree.

In fact, the ever-approaching thunder of your own mortality—the ultimate limitation—can help you cut out a lot of static and live more fully.

In his book Growing a Business, Paul Hawken states that “Companies without money dream and imagine”hunger speeds the plow—and a Harvard Business Review compilation of 145 empirical studies on the effects of constraint on creativity and innovation found that individuals, teams, and organizations all benefit from a healthy dose of constraints. It’s only when they become too high that they stifle creativity and innovation.

In other words, limitations of time, capital, and material present a motivating challenge and a boon to focus. So, it pays to frame them as creative challenges rather than blame them for holding you back.

When you can’t buy solutions, Hawken says, you invent them. The job you hate can pay the bills while you go to night school. Parents who were negative role models for following your passions may motivate you to rebel against them. Criticism can teach you to rely on your own intuition. A competitor may end up being someone you team up with. Personal tragedy can propel you to start up an organization to help others who suffered the same fate.

“It may be that when we no longer know what to do,” the writer Wendell Berry once said, “we have come to our real work, and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.”

Author Anne Tyler, for example, once described how having children initially put a drag on her writing but eventually inspired it. “They slowed down my writing for a while—in the beginning, I was drained; too much care and feeling were being drawn out of me. But eventually, when I did write, I found I had grown richer and deeper because of them and had more of a self to write from.”

Meditators, too, often discover that when they sit down to meditate, they’re distracted by blizzarding confetti of noises, self-talk, thoughts and judgments, and the general dither of daily life—the dog barking, the children screaming, the heater rattling, the planes going by overhead. And meditation teachers will usually tell them that distractions aren’t obstacles to the meditation, they are the meditation. So when the dog barks, you invoke the dog-bark meditation rather than muttering about the “noisesomeness” of the world. Blocks aren’t blocks to creativity, they’re telling us. They are the creativity.

I was reminded of this in a class on improvisational theater that I took years ago. I was instructed to enter into dialogue with another actor using only two words, “please” and “no”—I took one, and she took the other—and I was astonished at the number of ways we found to express such a limited theme, the seemingly infinite variations on inflection and body language.

Pianists wouldn’t think to judge themselves because their hands have only five fingers each and not six or eight—you work with what’s there—and few people embody this better than an artist I met years ago named Joe Sam, whom I had the good fortune to interview. Limitations are just about all he had when he started out in life. His first art projects were papier-mache sculptures made of old newspapers and spit, mobiles made with wire hangers, and collages assembled using strips of lead-based paint that peeled off the walls of his apartment when it rained—because those were the only art supplies in the Harlem tenement where he lived.

The circumstances of Sam’s early life weren’t exactly designed to encourage artistic initiative, but he did have, he told me, an unshakable “indigenous spirit,” as well as a single schoolteacher who took a personal interest in him.

Today, Sam is a successful collage artist living in San Francisco. Though he has no formal art training, the National Endowment for the Arts called him one of the country’s most important black artists. His acclaimed work includes a series of mixed-media pieces he calls The Black West, chronicling the life and times of black cowboys who, like Sam himself, improvised an identity from whatever was at hand.

In a modest version of what Sam’s life exemplifies, I discovered years ago that when I narrow the page margins while I’m doing my spontaneous writing practice—essentially giving it the format of poetry—I seem to push my brain into a more poetic frame of mind that elicits richer language, is more experimental and expressive, looser and less linear. That is, a literal narrowing down seems to affect a dramatic shift in the way my brain operates, if not the quality of my writing.

But Sam’s life and art are a testament to the fact that much that’s creative, original, and adventurous in the human story has arisen from acts of not just defying limitations (and certainly not denying them) but using them to propel ourselves forward, the way rockets use the gravitational drag of planets to fling themselves deeper into space.

We all have limitations, but what matters is how we convert them into our own creations. They’re among the raw materials for composing a life, the straw that can be woven into gold.

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