Dr Seuss: How constraints build creativity

Theodor Geisel was in Dartmouth college when he was caught drinking. It was during the prohibition period. As a result, Geisel was forced to quit from his position of being editor in chief of the college’s humour magazine.

But Geisel wasn’t going to let something so trivial limit him from writing. To continue writing, Geisel came up with a pen name: Dr Seuss.

Geisel had become rich writing ads and pithy taglines for brands. But one day, he was returning from a trip to Europe on a cruise ship and was stupid bored. So he began writing a story to the rhythm of the ship’s engine. That’s how Dr Seuss’s first children’s book was created: out of boredom. 

Geisel never let the fact that he had no children prevent him from writing children’s books.

Fixing illiteracy

In 1954, Life magazine published a report that delved into high illiteracy rates in America. Children were not learning to read because their books were boring. William Spaulding, the director of a textbook publishing company, wanted to fix this. And so, he compiled a list of 348 words that he felt were important for first graders. And asked Dr Seuss to create a book out of 250 of those words.

Geisel had already created constraints for himself where he only used one type of rhyming metre, and drew caricatures in his books in the same style. But this limiting the words was a new challenge for him.

And he delivered “The cat in the hat” with just 236 words in the whole book! The simplified vocabulary made it a popular children’s book that sold better than older Dr Seuss books!

Constraints build creativity

Constraints reduce options and distractions. They give you clear directions on what needs to be done. Which boosts creativity.

But the greatest advantage of shackling yourself with constraints is that it forces you to dive deeper. Instead of skimming the surface, you have to explore the depths of a field.

Basketball was a boring game before 1954. But in 1954, the shot clock was established. Players had to shoot within 24 seconds. This made the game faster and more exciting. Players had to develop better skills and become more athletic. 

One could no longer stall the game by holding the ball when in lead. Teams actually had to dig in deep and come up with better offensive and defensive strategies! Skyhooks and slam dunks were created because the game became much faster! The shot clock constraint saved basketball.

How to create your own constraints?

Creating constraints is a matter of knowing your goals and then setting limitations. There are various types of limitations you can set:

  1. Time constraints: impose strict deadlines
  2. Resource constraints: limit the material and money available
  3. Spatial constraints: limit the size and space
  4. Structural constraints: follow a specific structure or pattern or theme for your entire project
  5. Functional constraints: limit the features

Dr Seuss’s greatest book

A few years after “the cat in the hat” was published, Bennett Cerf – the founder of the publishing firm Random House – bet Theodor Giesel to do one better. He bet $50 that Geisel could not write a book with just 50 words in it.

Giesel took the bet. And won. Dr Seuss’s “Green eggs and ham” was published and became a bestseller. Infact, it has sold over 200 million copies – becoming one of the most popular children’s books in the world!

Action Summary:

  • How can you limit your options to become more creative?