Constraints: Beautiful and Otherwise
With thanks to KH Kim for the metaphor, and Brad (@haseman) for sharing it.
In her book ‘The Creativity Challenge’, KH Kim writes that “the most critical part of a creative process is the climate, rather than the creation or the creator. Fortunately, climates are the part parents and educators have the most control over.” She describes students as being ‘Bonsaied’, an apposite metaphor which I’d like to unpack a little more here, as it applies to the context in which I teach.
Bonsai is a living art form, practised and refined over many centuries. Its devotees consider bonsai to be a miniature meditation on the beauty of nature. To grow bonsai, cuttings are planted in shallow pots with limited space for water and nutrient reserves. These constraints on space and nutrition keep growth to the desired minimum.
When tended carefully, bonsai can live for many hundreds of years and, in Japan, are often passed down from generation to generation. As a bonsai tree grows the developing branches are bent into a pleasing shape by wrapping copper wire around them. It is also ‘styled’ by careful pruning.
My inner Japanophile marvels at a culture with such rarified aesthetic sensibilities, and my perfectionist side admires the skill and knowledge involved, but the nature-lover in me finds something unsettling in the deliberate stunting of a living organism which, left unattended, would have become a much larger and very different-looking tree. Does the cultivated shape mean the tree is more than it could have been, or is not what it should have been?
Hong Kong frequently exhorts us to “Reach full potential!” From education to cloud investments, from rehab facilities to startup hubs, it seems that none of us have ‘reached there’ yet, wherever ‘there’ might be be. We are encouraged to strive for an elusive something more, and so we must either consign ourselves to mediocrity, or vow to work even harder, like Benjamin, the Stakhanovite donkey of Orwell’s Animal Farm.
Nowhere is the desire to ‘Reach full potential’ more evident than in the relentless hot-housing of Hong Kong students, whose lives are consumed by an endless schedule of tutoring in pursuit of the certifications that are deemed to be the hallmarks of success (40+ point IB diploma, Grade 8 Piano etc.). So many of our young people are unwilling and exhausted participants in an educational arms-race, in which anything other than academic excellence jeopardises everyones’ imagined future happiness. For those not familiar with parental aspirations in Hong Kong, full potential often equates as one of a handful of permissible careers: medicine, business, engineering or law.
If we pause for a second to question “Reach full potential” we might realise just how problematic it is.
- What does “full potential” actually mean?
- How will we know when it has been reached?
- How can the attainment of ‘full potential’ be judged?
- Can it ever be attained? Or is it something more important, ineffable and elusive?
The fact of the matter is that reaching ‘full potential’ is, and should remain, unattainable if we live well. If we live a life of meaning and purpose, the elusive goals that the adult self continues to strive for will always remain tantalisingly out of reach. If not, at a certain age, we will run out of goals, ambition, purpose and meaning and that makes for a miserable human being
Bonsai can be seen as the well-intentioned creation of a climate which stifles growth, to a specific end, determined by its carer. The bonsai will only be considered ‘good’ when it is a particular shape, but we could look at this another way. We could play semantics and choose to call the judicious ‘pruning’ carefully inflicting a wound. Wiring could be seen as ‘binding, coercing or forcing into, or out of, shape’. When viewed this way, bonsai no longer sits quite as comfortably, and we would do well to consider the role of the bonsai master, who is responsible for determining which limb to remove, which part to shape, how much to water and feed and what type of nutrition is appropriate.
It is no exaggeration to say that the bonsai master is the God of the world of the tree, setting the climate, controlling the soil, the shape and the space. As educators and parents we also determine the conditions for our young people. We set the metaphorical weather and temperature in our homes and classrooms. All metaphors break down eventually and it is easy enough not to feel much in the way of empathy for the tree. After all, it isn’t aware of the future it was denied and still does all the things that an untrained tree does. If, however, we think about the tree as student, the wire becomes the absence of choice as a constraint. The nutrients, or lack thereof, are the educational choices we make on their behalves.
Earlier this year advertising giant Ogilvy India rolled out the ‘Forced Packs’ campaign to coincide with International Childrens’ Day. The creative team, headed by Akshay Seth and Chinmay Raut took a ‘brandalism’ approach to Cadbury’s Bournvita; a much-loved chocolate milk powder found in most Indian households. Seth and Raut subverted the traditional shape of the Bournvita Jar and stacked shelves with Bournvita in the wrong-shaped containers.
This was aligned with the #FaithNotForce movement which asks parents to nurture individual talents, rather than force their children into specific career paths. You can watch the TV advert here:
So, while pleasing to the eye and fulfilling our wishes, the overly-cosseted, deprived and manicured, little bonsai tree will never become what it could have been.
There is another way to look at ‘The wire’. If we look at those things that constrain us, which limit and act to define us, that constraint can often be “The stimulus to find a better way of doing something”. Let us return to India for a moment. Hinduism is the home of the Elephant-Headed God Ganesha.
Adherents pray to Ganesha to remove obstacles from their lives, just as a real-word elephant can remove a fallen log from a blocked path, but Ganesha also deliberately places obstacles in the paths of those who need to overcome them in order to develop as human beings.
Unlike the bonsai tree we have the luxury of being able to think about the constraints imposed upon us. The rhyme-schemes that poets choose to employ are a great example of creative limitations or ‘Beautiful constraints’ as Mark Barden and Adam Morgan call them.
In a Shakespearean Sonnet, Villanelle, or the dreaded Sestina, there are strict rules about line length, the placement of rhymes and patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables. If the poet deviates from the prescription, then the poem is not what it should be. Unlike the imprisoned bonsai tree, poets choose to operate in a rule-bound system because it forces them to think more creatively without compromising the integrity of the form. Twitter was successful because of, not in spite of, its 140 character limit.
Imagine again our constrained and constricted bonsai tree. Now imagine that the bonsai master stops controlling the shape, but continues to feed and water in ways that support healthy growth. What we will see is a tree that might look unruly, but is actually flourishing.
Perhaps we need to change the way we view ‘constraints’, and see them not as restrictive impositions but rather as independently and consciously chosen stimuli for increasing creativity and positive change.
There are a great many human technologies at work here. We would do well to consider the material and social pressures that inform the choices we make for others. We should also realise that, in choosing constraints for ourselves, we can actually be choosing a harder, but ultimately more fulfilling path for the creation of our work, and by extension, the creation of authentic selves.
Kimm, KH ‘The Creativity Challenge’, Prometheus Books 2016.
Barden & Morgan ‘Beautiful Constraints’, Wiley 2015