I am experiencing a severe lack of imagination as I write this. The topic is too big, and I am in need of inspiration, perhaps divine intervention. Ugh!
In my executive coaching training, I have been taught to maintain that everyone is creative, resourceful, and whole. I’m feeling none of those things right now. Becca!!! Why did you ask me to write this article! Imagination is just too big a topic. Okay, okay, Or, calm down a bit, chillax man, you can do this. Just break it down and soon the ideas will flow. Yes, make it smaller. You can dream big, just do it in context. Okay, here goes…
For some people, rules and structure can be limiting and might hamstring their creativity. But when you want to spur your imagination, it just might help to actually take certain ideas off the table and then play with what is left. Imagine the overwhelm you might feel when looking for a job somewhere in the entirety of the United States. Lots of options, but maybe too many choices can be paralyzing. Now imagine job hunting just in your city. Yes, the options are more limited but the opportunity to be creative in this context and to go deep can result in manageable imaginative opportunities.
Artist Phil Hansen calls this “creative limitation” claiming paradoxically that, “We need to first be limited in order to become limitless,” and “If you treat the problems as possibilities, life will start to dance with you in the most amazing ways.”
Let’s take some examples from popular culture. William Shakespeare is famous for setting some well-known creative limitations. His plays are mostly written in iambic pentameter, a line of verse with five metrical feet, each consisting of one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable. For example, Two households, both alike in dignity. There are conventional reasons why he did this, but his imagination rose to the challenge of this limitation.
Likewise with his Sonnets, which are also written in iambic pentameter, but are layered with further creative limitations of three quatrains and a final couplet with the rhyme scheme of abab cdcd efef gg. And even with (or because of) those limitations, his imagination was able to flourish. The Bard of Avon limited himself to the sonnetic structure even though he had the world of possibilities to choose from. Had he not chosen creative limitation, then we might have had Shakespeare’s Limericks. But because he did, our imaginations were gifted with, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” and not “There once was a guy who was hot.”
Closer to home, we have the Blues. The 12-bar Blues progression of chords is essentially a creative limitation that continues to ignite the imagination. Limiting themselves to just three chords placed rhythmically through 12 bars of repeating music, the Robert Johnsons, Muddy Waters, Little Walters, and Memphis Minnies of the world were able to contribute to the American musical and cultural imagination in the most wonderful of ways. It helped usher in jazz, soul, and rock and roll. It is amazing how much can be done with so little.
And should you think we don’t have creative limitation in Jewish life, you have another think coming.
One example is found in many traditional prayerbooks, where the introduction to the rabbinic text, or Sifra, is reprinted in the very beginning. In it, Rabbi Yishmael says the Torah can be understood by 13 interpretive principles (essentially rabbinic logic structures). Only 13? How wonderfully limiting!!! And from these limitations come the rich Jewish cultural imagination that continues to this day. And not only that; they are in our prayerbook. I know there are halakhic reasons for this, but I am letting my creative freak flag fly and will propose that they are in the siddur to remind us that, through creative limitations, through rules (and the occasional breaking of them), we can spark our collective spiritual imagination.
In our modern leadership learning, one model of creative limitation designed by the firm, Systematic Inventive Thinking (SIT), is called “Subtraction.” To kick-start imaginative product innovation, they recommend selecting one important component of a design and imagining what would happen if it were removed. A car without a combustion engine? Tesla. A conference without travel? Zoom. Torah without a book? Sefaria. Subtraction is imagination through creative limitation.
If we allow ourselves to be counterintuitive and limit ourselves, it seems we might stimulate our creative sparks of imagination for our communal projects, in addition to our personal imagination. I am struck by the connection between the Hebrew translation of “imagination” and “similarity;” they are both דִמיוֹן /dimyon. What imaginative interpretation can I make of this? Perhaps through this homophone, we can claim that if teams or communities working toward a future of new ideas or creative innovations can agree upon similar limitations, that we can inspire our communal imagination for a beautiful Jewish future. See what I did there?