Embracing Limitation

paintbrush on pastel oil paints
Danielle Dyer Photo

3 minutes

To unlock your organization’s creativity, separate constraining beliefs from true obstacles.

“Limitations aren't the end of our potential—in fact, they're merely the beginning,” said Phil Hansen, multimedia artist and co-founder of Phil in the Circle, Chanhassen, Minnesota. “We need to first be limited to become limitless.”

This is, perhaps, unintuitive advice; we’ve all been told that we must “think outside the box” to achieve creative, innovative solutions. But that boundless freedom can sometimes lead to paralysis when it comes time to take action.

Instead, suggested Hansen, credit unions might think “inside the box” to set realistic constraints to creativity. 

During the first general session of Directors Conference in Hawaii last week, Hansen described the limitation that almost ended his artistic career: He developed a tremor in his drawing hand that made it impossible to produce the tiny but distinct dots that defined his pointillism art style.

Despite his initial urge to give up, Hansen eventually chose to “embrace the shake” and experiment in scale and medium. He has produced “dots” on canvas, paper and notecard-covered walls by applying paint via martial arts moves and sneakers—and by drawing with greasy hamburgers. His artwork and time-lapse videos depicting its creation (and sometimes destruction) have gained widespread notoriety.

After giving a TED talk on transcending his limitations, “people started reaching out, asking for help overcoming their challenges,” Hansen recalled. Through these conversations, he came to a realization.

“Every challenge we're presented with in our life is composed of these two things,” said Hansen: true limitation vs. self-limiting belief. A true limitation is an obstacle that has been put in our way. A self-limiting belief is something we put in our own way.

Different people react to limitations in different ways. Present a team with a set of challenges, and you’ll see that some are willing to dive in and adapt, and others are “ready to put their hands up” and surrender. To help get the whole team working together, Hansen described a three-step approach:   

  1. Break down the challenge.
  2. Ask honest questions.
  3. Get creative.

“’If my hand shakes, I can't do art.’ That’s a self-limiting belief,” said Hansen, explaining that the first step is separating the self-limiting belief from the actual limitation. By doing so, you can ask questions that lead to solutions: “How can I do art with a shaky hand?”

In the business world, we often think about solutions in terms of needing more people, more tools (or the right tools), and more money, noted Hansen. So when a challenge presents itself, organizations often find a reason—like a recession—to just “wait it out.” 

“But it’s the challenging times that give us far more potential for success,” he stressed. “When we rely too much on external resources, we ignore our most important internal resources.”

So, the next time a challenge arises, evaluate your internal resources and capabilities. Think of them, no matter how limited, as a starting point instead of a brick wall. 

“When you view limitations as opportunities,” Hansen concluded, “you’ll see there’s not a future that you’re supposed to have, but there’s a future you can create.”

Danielle Dyer is an editor at CUES.

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