The Endless Opportunity That Comes From Limitations

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Is that even possible? When you are so limited, how does that create a word of endless opportunities?

Quick: think of an idea for a TV show as quickly as possible. So, how did you do? What did you come up with? Try again. Quick: think of an idea for a TV about a plane crash as quickly as possible. So, how did you do? What did you come up with? Famed TV and movie producer, J.J. Abrams (Alias, Felicity, Revolution, Star Trek, Mission Impossible, Super 8, etc…), was issued the second challenge. Guess what happened? Within ninety minutes, he had the initial outline for the hit television series, Lost. I had the pleasure of attending the Google Zeitgeist event this week in Phoenix, Arizona. Abrams was in conversation on stage with documentary film maker, Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, etc…). Abrams was trying to make a point. Had the television network called him and asked for a new television series, it would have probably taken him months (maybe longer) to come up with a concept he was proud of. Because they asked, specifically, for a TV show about a plane crash, the limitations conjured up ideas and he was able to get to Lost in no time at all.

There’s a big lesson here.

We often think that creativity needs to be boundless. What we often don’t realize is that the vast majority of the great creative work that we all appreciate was created with boundaries (they could have been anything from deadline and budget to conceptual frameworks or working with a specific direction). Creativity has a funny way of poking through when the rails and scope of a project are more clearly defined.

Marketers forget this.

Because advertising is a function of commerce and creativity, there is often the discussion that the work suffers because of things like budget and time constraints or the stuff we can (and cannot do), according to the brand managers. How often have you heard that the advertising was bad because there was not enough budget to do something good? I fall into another category: what inspires me is the ability to be creative and deliver results in conjunction with constraints (however major or minor). We’re constantly fascinated by the story of an individual who came from nothing and managed to thrive. We seem to forget that the inflection point in that story arc happens when the person does something without the traditional resources that other have had to accomplish the same. The limitation were critical to the end result.

Let’s not lose that story.

There is no doubt, that it’s always wonderful to have an extra day to create something. There is no doubt, that it’s always wonderful to have some more budget. In a perfect world, that would be perfect. But things aren’t perfect. What will truly inspire? What will truly enable the creative ranks to leave their mark is how they create majesty within the realistic world of constraints and limitations.

And, if all else fails, think about the J.J. Abrams story above and create your own limitations. Who knows, that just might create endless opportunity.


  1. Mitch, this is a fantastic entry. It’s somewhat counter to general assumptions many hold about the dynamics of the marketing process.
    Limitations force us to be creative. Love it!

  2. That’s exactly why I set up my blog to rotate through general categories on Mon-Wed-Fri…it’s so much easier to sit down and write around a subject area, rather than just a blank page.

  3. Awesome blogpost 🙂 Majority of the great creative work that we all appreciate was created with boundaries …

  4. Great post Mitch!
    It is true that when given direction, creativity often pokes through. If you don’t put some sort of limitation, or don’t have any guidelines, you’re creativity is free to flow anywhere and everywhere, which often gets messy.
    I know if I don’t have somewhat of a direction to my creativity, I often fall into “Wow- I can’t think of anything”. Because I am free to think about anything with no limitations, I find it DOES put a limitation on my creativity, as I do not really know what I should be thinking about. Does anyone else experience this?

  5. Brian Eno has been applying the technique of ‘limitation’ all his life to spur creativity. No matter what the field, people tend to get creative when they’re confined to a specific realm of choice.

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