Recently I read two interesting quotes about the presence of constraints in life. The first was in a book of interviews on poetic structure entitled Fourteen on Form, in which one of the poets observed that students of his accustomed to writing free verse often didn’t like writing in meter or rhyme because they couldn’t say exactly what they wanted to say. The second was in an interview with the late, great jazz pianist and composer Lyle Mays, who said that you need to face some restrictions in order to stimulate creativity and have interesting problems to solve (you can hear the results in his final work, entitled Eberhard).
These statements are paradoxical. Isn’t complete freedom the ideal? Aren’t constraints distressingly limiting? How can I be my “true self” (a topic for another day) if I’m hemmed in by restrictions?
I don’t see it that way. Great artworks like Shakespeare’s sonnets or Bach’s cello suites grew out of the very constraints of the forms in which the artists worked. Great buildings like Fallingwater do justice to their site and of course need to keep out the wind and rain (even though Frank Lloyd Wright is reputed to have said that “it’s not architecture if the roof doesn’t leak”!). Great athletes like Michael Jordan or Roger Federer are, after all, playing a game with well-defined rules. Great companies can’t just do whatever they want but need to make products and services that both meet the needs of their customers and turn a profit so that they can stay in business. Great friendships and marriages are founded in give and take, mutual respect, and compassion that flows in both directions. Et cetera.
As the quote from Lyle Mays indicates, the positive power of constraints is not just about the outcome but more fundamentally about the process. Creatively solving a challenging problem is deeply engaging, whereas “tennis without a net” is simply a bore because it is way too easy.
So here’s to constraints!