Limitations are Invitations

Recently, I read about Chris Downey, a successful architect in San Francisco who at age 45 lost his sight completely. He had a tumor safely removed from his optic nerve and, although the surgery was successful, 24 hours later, his vision went completely dark. After days of testing, a surgeon finally told him his condition was permanent. His next visitor was a social worker who, after looking at his chart and noticing he was an architect, immediately proposed career alternatives. 

“I felt like these walls were being built up around me, just like, yeah, you’re gettin’ boxed in,” Downey told CBS News in an interview. 

Rather than let the world assume his lack of sight and career as an architect were incompatible, Downey took matters into his own hands ― literally. He found an embossing printer to help him read architectural drawings similar to reading Braille. He even developed a technique to “draw” out ideas using malleable wax sticks. He joined the San Francisco Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired to learn how to navigate all aspects of life without the need of sight. 

As he began relying more on his senses, he says a new level of “sight” opened up to him. “I was fascinated, walking through buildings that I knew [when I was] sighted, but I was experiencing them in a different way. I was hearing the architecture; I was feeling the space.” 

Nine months after going blind, Downey lost his job to the Great Recession. But shortly after, he heard from a firm who was designing a rehabilitation center for veterans with sight loss. They were eager to meet a blind architect. That opening led to Downey becoming known as a specialist in designing spaces that are accessible to the blind. He designed a new eye center at Duke University Hospital, he has consulted for Microsoft, and he is currently working with San Francisco’s Transbay Transit Center to ensure visually impaired people can more easily find their way. 

Those of you familiar with my background know that I studied architecture, and I’m also dealing with an early form of macular-degeneration. It’s easy to see why this article struck a chord with me. In the back of my mind, I have this persistent, nagging question, “how will I survive if/when I lose my sight completely?” That’s why people like Downey inspire me. They take disability and redefine it as a uniquely valuable asset. 

You may also have heard me say before that while the word “no” may block a path, it doesn’t have to mean the end of a journey. Instead, for the determined, it can be defined as “Next Opportunity.” Downey embodies this idea; he took what many expected was a dead-end situation and “remodeled” it into new opportunities for his career and the visually impaired community as a whole. 

In life, we hear “no” frequently, and much of the time, many of us accept defeat and stop there. Instead of feeling deflated and giving up, we can choose to look for the “next opportunity” in achieving our goals. Perhaps this means embracing the new restriction and looking at the problem and solution from a different angle, or taking a constraint put on us, and leveraging it to achieve our goal in a more novel fashion. Research indicates such shackles can inspire us to be more creative. 

Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D., author of Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, discusses how, while creativity does involve variability and different ways of doing things, it also requires constraints, “which can either promote or preclude creativity” depending on how open-minded one is viewing the situation from a novel perspective. 

Meanwhile, a 2015 study from the University of Illinois, examined how scarcity or abundance could influence how creatively people use their resources. The researchers found that people have no incentive to use what’s available to them in novel ways unless resource constraints are placed upon them. 

Then there’s another study, from the University of Amsterdam’s Department of Social Psychology. which revealed that tough obstacles could prompt people to look at the “big picture,” and make connections between items that are not obvious at first. They dubbed this ability “global processing,” and it’s now understood to be a cornerstone of creativity. 

Since “Next Opportunity” situations present themselves frequently, it pays to practice redefining and rethinking our views on the world around us. This way, we are primed and ready to reframe the situation to find a new solution. Here are some exercises to practice strengthening your brain’s global processing abilities, and prep you for your next N.O. situation. 

  • Fail Forward: This exercise is ideal for people who are perfectionists, or who resist trying new things because they are not 100% certain they will succeed. The activity is simple; purposely embrace small “failures” that don’t matter, to experience how remarkably simple it is to come back from mistakes. This could be breaking a water glass (carrying more than you normally would), giving someone the wrong directions to the bathroom (because you’re not certain yourself), calling someone by the wrong name (because you cannot remember it), etc. By failing at these little things, you’ll quickly realize that such mistakes don’t matter. You will allow the mind to feel safer taking risks on opportunities that could feel more important. You may also discover you are more capable than you believed. 
  • Obscure a Sense: For this one, go to a public place with a friend you trust and don a blindfold. Allow yourself to be led around and do your best to navigate the world through your other senses. Restrict your sight for more than 30 minutes, and notice how your other senses seem to kick in. If you are ambitious (and have enough support), try spending an entire day blindfolded.
  • Cook a meal with a “secret ingredient”: If you’ve watched Iron Chef, Top Chef or Chopped, you know the drill. Contestants are forced to create a dish using a random ingredient. At home, ask your dinner companion to select an uncommon food for you. Then, make a meal based on that and what’s in your fridge. Make sure to your stock refrigerator, and you have the pizza delivery guy on speed dial – just in case!
  • Place constraints on a process you know well: this is a good one for company teams who might have grown stale. For an exercise, take a process or recurring problem encountered and remove one dependable solution or one essential resource from it. Then, ask the team to come up with another solution for solving the problem. You might be surprised at the results. 

This week, play around with how you can use constraints to open up your life to new solutions for accomplishing your goals. Start with an effort (either at work or home) where you often feel thwarted. How can you look at the problem in a novel way? What might happen if you took away one element of it to constrain yourself into thinking differently? 

“Embrace your constraints. They are provocative. They are challenging. They wake you up. They make you more creative. They make you better.” – Biz Stone, an American entrepreneur, and co-founder of Twitter (1974 – )

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