Limit to Be Free

Fortune #169

For the Jar of Fortunes photo projects, I gave myself several limits: all photos had to be taken with an iPhone, with available light only, in only one room of my house, include only objects found within that room, and feature a fortune cookie fortune.

A few months ago, Jeff Wagg asked me to speak at the upcoming College of Curiosity Conference. When I asked what he wanted me to speak upon, he said, “Anything.”

And I was stumped. I had no idea what to do.

When I lamented about my problem on Twitter, my friend Jill Bernard (an amazing improv comedian) said I should write about the concept of Limit to Be Free.

And I said, “Uh… what’s that?”

Jill replied, “When things are limited, we feel freer. I ask people to make a noise, they’re stumped; a barnyard animal noise, they’ve plenty.” (The strange phrasing is thanks to Twitter’s 140 character limit.) (Hey, that’s also a limit!)

And then I instantly knew what she was talking about.

I responded, “So, you’re saying I should solve my predicament by talking about my predicament?” How meta!

Well, I’m talking on a different subject next weekend, but thinking about doing a Limit to Be Free talk got my brain moving. Jeff’s request gave me no guidelines. By lamenting about that on Twitter, I asked for limits by asking for suggestions from others. Jill’s suggestion gave my brain a toehold, and I was able to climb from there.

The reason I immediately recognized what Jill was talking about, once she explained her turn of phrase, is because I’ve used the concept all my life. I just had no name for it until now.


One of the gripes I hear from graphic designers and other hired gun artists is that they hate working for clients who give no guidance. A client who says, “Oh, I trust your genius, just come up with anything,” is harming, not helping. Here’s why.

Let’s imagine a box on an infinite two-dimensional plane.


Math time, people: how many points are there on that plane, outside the box? The answer: infinity.

The moment a client says, “Oh, do anything,” they’re not doing you the favor that they think they are. The artist is stuck throwing darts at an infinite plane, hoping to randomly hit a point that the client will like. That’s a waste of time for both the artist and the client.

If a client gives any sort of guidance, even to the level of, “I like the color blue,” that’s a box. That’s something the artist can work with.

Math time again: how many points are inside the box on that two-dimensional plane? The answer: because a point is infinitely small, the answer again is infinity.

…but it’s an infinity that the client might like. By narrowing the target, the artist can come up with drafts closer to the client’s strike zone, and the two can work together to turn those drafts into something great.

The reason clients drop those terrible vague words upon artists is because our society is so used to hearing about artists who fought against society or a record label, and about artists wishing they had free reign to do what they wanted. However, I have a Day Job within the corporate world, and I always hear the old “think outside the box” adage. Well, in order to think outside the box, you first need a box. A good artist knows when to break rules.

So, give them rules to break. Or, if you are already an artist, give yourself rules to break.


Physics time: hold your hand at your shoulder. Now stick your hand out into the air front of you. Aside from moving some air around, what happens? Not much.

Now put your face against a wall and do the same thing. You just fell over, didn’t you?

Now pick yourself up and read.

That wall is a limit. A force applied to nothing does nothing, as an object at rest tends to stay at rest. To overcome inertia, you need to apply force to something.

I’ve seen a lot of people who want to be creative, but do nothing about it, because they are “waiting for inspiration.” The thing is, if you’re waiting around for lightning to randomly strike, you will likely be waiting around for a long time. The most important thing in art is to make something happen. The laws of inertia to apply here. If you are in motion, you tend to stay in motion. So you need to get in motion.

Limits are great for getting into motion. Limits are a launching pad. Limits are why so many people, even non-writers, love NaNoWriMo. By limiting the huge task of writing a novel to a daily task and a deadline, the NaNoWriMo project has generated a massive amount of creative material. By getting writers writing, NaNoWriMo inspires them and prepares them to do more writing.


There is a reason why I was using science analogies above. That’s because Limit to Be Free is a concept that applies everywhere.

Ever heard the phrase, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade”? Yes, precisely.

The waterproof cloth in Mackintosh raincoats was invented because England was awash in coal tar and nobody knew what to do with it. Charles Macintosh was just sitting around in the 1820s saying, “Hey, we have all this sticky stuff just lying around. What can we do with it?” The limit was the coal tar itself.

If I told you to invent something — anything — you’d stare at me blankly. If I told you to take a fork and find a new use for it, you’d have a dozen ideas in a minute.


The Minneapples

Photo of the Minneapples, performing at HUGE Theater in 2012

Another great feature about Limit to Be Free is that it allows you to fail… as long as you know how to fail. You just need to see a failure as another limit, which you can use as another launch pad.

There is a mantra in improvised theater: “Yes, and…” The cardinal rule is that, when you are improvising, you have to accept what the other actors give you. If you are pantomiming leading a dog on a leash, and your partner comes up and says, “Hey, nice alligator,” you cannot respond, “No, it’s a dog.” You have to accept that your imaginary dog is now an alligator.

The Yes And is an agreement. You and your partners have agree to accept each others minute-to-minute contributions, and you have to work with what you are given. Your responsibility is to build upon those contributions. You and your partners are forever branching off into uncharted territories, supported by each other. This is why good improv comedy winds up in some absolutely bizarre places. These are places that the individual players would never be able to create on their own.

Each node in a Yes And tree is most importantly a node. It could be a bland node, or a funny node, or terrible node, but it is most importantly a node. It is a limit. Even if you make a terrible decision in your improv scene, it’s entirely possible that your partner could find something insanely amazing to do with it. Or vice versa. Bad moves can create great moves later.

By forcing yourself to use the bad moves, you open worlds you would have never previously seen. By using your failures, you can become a ninja of versatility.



  1. Another great example that came right to mind is the stuff people build with limited components.

    My first thought was Minecraft. Even in the vanilla game, people have created full scale models of the Enterprise-D, and even Middle Earth as depicted in Lord of the Rings. Then there are is redstone that people build actual working (albeit slow and huge) computers out of. Just search YouTube for redstone computer and see what I mean.

    Another example is LEGO and particularly Mindstorm. Add in a smartphone to control it and they can solve Rubik’s Cubes as fast as the best human cubers. There have also been machine guns that rapidly fire LEGO ammo, a machine that can score 300 in Wii Bowling, and even 3D printers.

    I think this may be why fan-art and fan-fic are so very popular. The artist/author doesn’t need to come up with characters, subjects, or even necessarily a style because they already exist. My first My Little Pony fan-comic wasn’t really scripted; it just used Wash’s “This Land” dinosaur interaction from Firefly as the dialog, and I drew the ponies acting it out using costumes and a background from a recent episode.

    I do think the limit is a huge creativity boost when it comes to twitter.

  2. I think I broke the wall…

  3. As a kid, I had LEGO, and from some very simple shapes, I was able to make just about any toy I desired. X-wing fighter with working wing extenders? Check. Y-wing? Check. Snowspeeder? Yep, with two opening doors. While the Falkland War was happening, I was intrigued by Harrier Hawk Jump Jets, and I pulled my set out and managed to make one.

    LEGO is a VERY limiting medium, but that limit allows creativity to happen by not getting in it’s way. You can make just about anything with Photoshop or Illustrator, but what’s caught the imagination of a generation? Minecraft – digital LEGO. Limits really are freedom.

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