How Thinking Inside the Box Unleashes Creativity

Creativity can shine in spite of and because of limitations. And it's one of the most important skills we can pass on to the next generation.

by / July 3, 2014 0
Artist and author Phil Hansen shares the creative ideas he came up with to overcome a hand tremor that initially hindered his artwork. Tanya Roscorla

ATLANTA  — We often hear people say, "Think outside the box." But sometimes, thinking inside the box unleashes more creativity.

By working inside the box, artist and author Phil Hansen found freedom to create. He shared his story during the EdTekTalks session at ISTE on Monday, June 30, and talked about why it's important to give students opportunities to hone their creativity skills.

"Creativity is a skill, and it's probably the most valuable skill we can pass on to the next generation," Hansen said.

But here's the problem. Children have dreams, believe anything is possible and ask "what if" questions. Then as they grow older, adults sometimes squash their dreams, telling them what they can and can't do. Instead of a world full of endless possibilities, they have one road of certainty. Instead of asking, "What if we do this?" they talk about what is happening. And the story of their life follows this line of thinking.

Hansen's story started down the path of certainty for a while. But the words of a neurosurgeon brought him back to the path of creativity.

In middle school, he took his first art class and fell in love with pointillism, a style of art that uses tiny dots to make an image. For hours, he perfected this art until he could make even smaller dots.

But this intense practice took a toll on the nerves in his hands, and they started to shake. Pointillism requires a steady, precise hand, and he couldn't have any shake in his work. So he started holding the pencil even tighter, which increased the shake even further. 

What used to be dots looked more like tadpoles, and he left art school. Shortly thereafter, he stopped making art altogether.

For most of his life, art was pointillism, and he didn't know how to make art without it. So he just quit. He gave up for three years, and then a friend suggested that he visit a neurosurgeon.

The neurosurgeon told him he had permanent nerve damage. When Hansen showed him that the only line he could draw was squiggly, the surgeon said, "Well, your hand shakes. Why don't you embrace it?"

Until he heard that question, Hansen didn't realize that he had a choice to embrace the shake. Once he heard the surgeon's words, he went home, grabbed a pencil and paper, and started to draw.

He let his hand shake and made scribble drawings. While it wasn't the art form he loved, he discovered that he could still make art; he just had to do it differently.

"I went from having a single approach to art to an approach to creativity that has completely changed my artistic horizons," Hansen said. "This was the first time that I realized that embracing a limitation could actually drive creativity." 

He learned another lesson about limitations when he spent the money he earned from his paycheck on every art supply that he had ever wanted. He set all the supplies up in his studio, sat down and tried to think of something he could do that was completely out of the box.

One day went by. Nothing came to mind. Several days later, he was still sitting there, in a creative slump, unsure of what to make. He was paralyzed by all the choices that he had never had before.

Then he remembered his earlier lesson about embracing the shake and decided to put some limitations on his art. Instead of thinking outside the box, he got back into it.

He decided to see what he could make with $1 worth of supplies. Hansen spent nearly every night at Starbucks, and they would give him an extra cup if he asked. So the next time he went, he decided to ask for 50. And that's what he got.

With 50 coffee cups and pencils, he drew a picture of a boy for 80 cents. And that's when he learned that in order to become limitless, he needed to first be limited.

His creativity led him on a journey to rethink the canvas, the brush and the material. Instead of painting on a regular canvas, he painted on his chest. Instead of using paint, he used words from people's life-changing moments. Instead of painting with a brush, he painted by doing karate chops: 

Then he went on a year-long discovery process he called "Goodbye Art," where he made art and then destroyed it. He created a picture of Jimi Hendrix out of 7,000 red, white and black-tipped matches, then burned it. After that, he decided to create art that would naturally self-destruct. He created a portrait in the snow with wine and brought it inside to thaw. He made pictures with sidewalk chalk that faded away. And he spit out food into a painting that would decay.

Finally, he decided to create a piece of art that never existed in its physical form. He took votive candles and rearranged them into 23 different pieces that made up a picture, but blew each piece out before he created the next one. That way, the complete physical picture was never seen, but the video he took of his art session showed it. 

"What I thought would be the ultimate limitation really turned out to be the ultimate liberation," Hansen said. "As I was destroying each piece, I was learning to let go, to let go of outcomes, let go of failures and let go of imperfections." 

He constantly created and thought only of what was next, not about the outcomes. And to this day, he is taking his creativity to new levels.

But the U.S. education system is stifling children's creativity, said education author Ken Robinson in his keynote last year at the EDUCAUSE conference. At the same conference, game designer Jane McGonigal proposed a solution to this problem in her keynote: Gaming.

What would happen if education stopped focusing so much on outcomes and started focusing more on the creative journey? What if failure was not only fine, but expected?

Some educators around the country are starting to shift toward this kind of learning culture, both in the classrooms and in the back rooms. At the Consortium for School Networking conference in March, conference organizers hosted a Fail Fest for the first time to celebrate failures and the lessons learned from them.

With increased opportunities to personalize learning, educators can pass on the skill of creativity to the next generation and give them some tools to practice with, including technology.

"Instead of telling each other to seize the day," Hansen said, "maybe we need to remind ourselves every day to seize the limitation."

Tanya Roscorla Former Managing Editor

Tanya Roscorla covered ed tech from 2009-2017.