Learning to create in and thrive in an ever-shifting business environment is a bit like learning to appreciate Salvador Dali, even if you don't really like his art.
Creativity is overcoming limitations, transcending barriers, turning obstacles into advantages. You may have heard that before. But have you considered the idea that progress happens because of—not in spite of—the things that get in our way?
Absurd, right? We long to free ourselves from limitations. Working with them would mean accepting defeat, wouldn’t it? Not necessarily. When there are no constraints to work with, the situation is not exactly paralyzing, but in some strange way it becomes a barrier to higher levels of achievement.
"As I've walked through his museum in figures and pubol, I've been mightily impressed by Dalí the artist. With the actual art, not so much."
—Writer Christian Doering, Talking Business Column, Church Designer
This line of thought started for me on a recent visit to the Dalí Museum in Figueres, Spain. Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) is mainly associated with Surrealism via the melting clocks of paintings such as The Persistence of Memory and films like Un Chien Andalou, on which he collaborated with Luis Buñuel. He also made sculptures, jewelry, designed theatrical sets and commercial graphics.
In his latter years, Dalí created his own museum in his home town out of a theater that burned down during the Spanish Civil War. The building houses not only a wide range of paintings, photographs and other objects, but the artist himself, who is buried in a crypt beneath the stage.A walking contradiction?
A walk through his museum reveals that Dalí’s prolific artistic output was the result of a truly prodigious talent. He could do literally anything he wanted to with a paint brush: realistic renderings worthy of any Italian, any Italian, Dutch or Flemish master are casually dropped into his surreal landscapes. If he wanted to emulate the boldly gestural lines of Picasso, he could do that. From pencil on paper to charcoal, oil, sculpture, mixed media, Dalí had seemingly total command over a full range of artistic media. Furthermore, in the latter part of his highly successful career Dalí had virtually unlimited material and financial resources at his disposal.
As I’ve walked through his museums in Figueres and Pubol, [Spain], I’ve been mightily impressed by Dalí the artist. With the actual art, not so much. One might argue that Dalí’s best work is now in the hands of the Dalí museums in St. Petersburg, Fla., and Monterey, Calif. Or perhaps early-to-mid-20th century surrealism is just not to my taste. But I think what’s missing in Dalí’s work is a clear direction, an aim. Dalí could say anything through his art, but that made it almost impossible for him to decide on what he actually needed to say.
The most successful works in the Figueres museum are those in which Dalí restricts his own seemingly boundless skillset. Pencil on paper, charcoal—these limited media demanded that the artist focus his vision. The results are clearly more coherent statements of intent than what emerges from oil on canvas or other less constrained forms. Dalí’s masterful technique allowed these media to present a nearly infinite array of possibilities that seem to have overwhelmed his ability to imagine a coherent statement.
If you’re a huge Dalí fan, you have every right to disagree totally with my critical assessment. But my point is still valid, although you are welcome to disagree with my choice of an example.
What is the point here? When you’re confronted with limitations and difficulties on a project, you should welcome them. An unlimited budget seems ideal. But what will you actually write on that blank check? A virgin greenfield building site may offer the total freedom of a blank canvas. But what truly belongs in that spot?The openness of limitation
These are critical, foundational questions that must be answered at the start of a project. Otherwise you end up doing what Dali seems to have done in most of his paintings: making a part, then another part and then another, without ever getting to the whole.
If you got on the train in Figueres and rode for about two hours, you’d be in Barcelona, where there is a small Picasso museum. It contains examples from his days as an art student, donated to the city by his family after the artist’s death. As paintings and drawings, they look … studied. Apparently whatever art schools young Pablo attended were fraught with the imitations of as many of the recognized styles that had gone before as possible. So that’s what the young Picasso did, quite competently in fact. Oh, there’s an Old Master preparatory sketch. There’s an Impressionist landscape. And there, the last item on the last panel, is a small … Picasso. Unmistakable. Somehow, after demonstrating that he too could do pretty much everything his noteworthy predecessors had done, this artist decides what he is going to do. He would spend the rest of his life exploring the territory defined by that small sketch. Picasso saw what Dalí apparently missed: that there were endless discoveries to be made within the boundaries he set for himself.
Boundaries are necessary, whether they represent our own choices or decisions that are made for us. They do more than constrain your ideas. Limits contain all the pieces of a project, making it possible for them to cohere and become a complete, whole statement. Parameters are not there to be broken, destroyed, done away with. Problems exist to be solved. Restrictions exist to be transcended. That is the true meaning of creativity: not abolishing the law of gravity, but finding ways to soar [anyway].
Financial limits, governmental regulations, neighborhood zoning restrictions and the like are part of your toolset. You have a map of the territory. You can decide where you want to go. You’re not just flailing about in empty, trackless space. You know, or can decide, which way is up. So say thank you to the immovable data points that enable you to do that.