How to View Constraints as Blessings in Disguise

constraints

“What we need is to tell a powerful story on our thank you card,” I said.

The team unanimously agreed to the concept and in minutes volunteered me to lead that storytelling project. This happened in the volunteer marketing team meeting at Sankara Eye Foundation, which has helped perform one million free eye surgeries in India.

Sending a thank you card is an annual project at the non-profit. We send out tens of thousands of thank you cards to all the donors and, of course, ask for more donations in the same outreach.

The task was clear and the constraints were set: a powerful and engaging story had to be told on a single thank you card.

Constraints generally denote problems. There is a negative connotation to the word itself.

But that is not the only way to look at constraints.

They can be positives too. It just depends on how you look at them.

Touching (in more ways than one)

It took several days and at least a dozen iterations before I was happy with the copy and the design.

Here is how the final card looked:

thank-you-card

The recipient could clearly feel the emotional appeal. The entire story was encapsulated in one single sentence:

YOU know the JOY of taking someone from

T H A N K   Y O U (in Braille)

to

T H A N K   Y O U (in English)

The Braille section was embossed to create the “touching” part, both literally and figuratively. We had to tell a story in line with the theme of eradicating curable blindness. The design above achieved that while acknowledging the past and future contributions from the recipients (donors).

The verdict? The card was a hit.

Not only did donations pour in, but there were requests for more cards to be printed because people wanted to keep them as souvenirs.

Mission accomplished.

Constraint turned into positive.

Constraints lead to growth

A few years ago, I realized that constraints were really blessings in disguise.

Embracing and internalizing this changed the way I look at writing and the way I look at life.

My biggest learning and growth came when I worked through the constraints along the way. Whether the outcome was a failure or a success, one thing was common: there was huge personal growth as a side effect.

I have dozens of examples, and I have chosen from the world of writing to make my point:

Writing a 50,000-word book … in 30 days

The first four books I wrote were based on fiction. A story of how my first book got published (and the constraints involved in the journey) is here.

My recent books are all related to some aspects of business. I always wanted to write another fiction book one day. Since a wish alone is not good enough to move the needle, no real progress was made.

In 2009, I heard about National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) — a movement to help aspiring and veteran authors start and finish at least a 50,000-word book in the month of November. The 30-day constraint and 50,000-word limit were intriguing.

I signed up right away and made a plan based on daily word counts. The math was simple: if I wrote 2,000 words a day, I would be well ahead of the schedule. I stuck to the plan for the first few days and was happy about it.

A group of us met at a fellow author’s residence for a writing blitz. The first few minutes went by discussing where each of us stood on the word count. Most of us were in the same range, but the host said she was at 2,500 words.

There was silence for a moment.

Everyone felt she was running way behind, but before someone spoke the host continued, “But not to worry as this is my third book this month.”

Now total disbelief filled the room.

The host explained that she has a different approach to writing in November. Her trick was to set an even more aggressive constraint (say eight days to complete writing the book), then all of a sudden the earlier constraint (30 days) seemed like nothing big.

This incident reset my outlook on constraints, reminding me that constraints are relative. It was a big lesson to learn.

Long story short: I completed 55,000 words on November 19. As you can see, this was well in advance of the November 30 deadline.

Provoking thought … in 140 characters

I resisted using Twitter for a long time, thinking it was a total waste of time. I even told several of my friends that they were wasting time on Twitter.

“After all, what can you really say in 140 characters?” was my explanation.

In one such conversation, my classmate Navin Nagiah (currently the CEO of DNN Software) asked me a question back: “Raj, is it that Twitter is a waste of time or that you don’t have what it takes to make the most of what the platform provides?”

It made me think. A lot.

The constraint immediately seemed like a challenge — an open invitation to test my creativity.

After a few days, I started writing a book using Twitter. It was my own collection of tweets to make people think, each with the hashtag #ThinkTweet.

It took longer than I thought to come up with 140 ThinkTweets, but it was worth the effort. It made me think about and rewrite the same idea multiple times before I posted it on Twitter. It was a lesson in learning how to say a lot in a very few words.

The book, titled ThinkTweet (foreword by Guy Kawasaki), was published in partnership with my friend Mitchell Levy.

Today, we have more than 75 books in the series, all in the format of ThinkTweets on various topics.

Teaching life and business lessons … in 50-word stories

I teach storytelling for startup entrepreneurs. I thought it would be good to have a set of stories through which I can explain the fundamentals of storytelling.

Mini sagas are stories that are told in exactly 50 words each, not a word more or less. Dan Pink revealed the concept to me in his book, A Whole New Mind.

So I started writing mini sagas not just for the sake of writing them, but with a purpose: to teach the craft of storytelling.

I fumbled. I fell down and got bruised everywhere because it was not as easy as I thought it would be.

Finally, I found an approach that made writing mini sagas a breeze.

Here are a couple of examples:

The Deal

The sales team in a startup was jazzed after a great customer presentation. The startup VC had a prior relationship with the customer. He called the customer and asked if he would buy the system from them. The customer politely responded “No way. The meeting was only for market research.”

Happiness

It was a good year for John. His hard work had handsomely paid off albeit with sacrifices on the family side. When he told his friend Bob that he had many reasons to be happy about the year, Bob asked – “Why do you need a reason to be happy?”

The above mini sagas have all five elements of a good story: exposition, conflict, rising action, resolution and denouement.

And these mini sagas — thanks to the constraint of their format, not in spite of it — became valuable tools in helping me teach storytelling to startup entrepreneurs

A 5-step plan for seeing constraints as blessings

So how do you learn how to take a constraint and turn it into something that works for you instead of against you?

Here are five steps that will help:

1. Alter how you view constraints.

The majority of people whine and complain in the face of constraints. So it is easy to get carried away and join the majority.

The problem with whining and complaining is that it simply gives you a license for inaction.

The moment you begin looking at constraints as challenges and opportunities presented to you, your world will be different.

2. Have a beginner’s mind.

First, a definition of the beginner’s mind (from Wikipedia):

Shoshin is a concept in Zen Buddhism meaning “beginner’s mind.” It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would. The term is especially used in the study of Zen Buddhism and Japanese martial arts.

Constraints present new territories that you have not traveled before. Without an open mind, the journey gets rough.

With an open mind, you will start noticing possibilities that you didn’t notice before.

3. Practice effectuation.

Effectuation, according to Darden professor Saras Sarasvathy, is “a logic of thinking, discovered through scientific research, used by expert entrepreneurs to build successful ventures.”

In the insightful paper What Makes Entrepreneurs Entrepreneurial?, Prof. Saraswathy outlines her research on the major difference between the mindset of the entrepreneurs and the mindset of others. Quick summary:

  • Others will identify a goal and look for resources to help them reach the goal.
  • Entrepreneurs identify all the resources they have and look for goals to reach with those resources. This kind of thinking is called effectuation.

While Prof. Saraswathy was referring to this in the context of entrepreneurship, effectual thinking is useful for anyone who is trying to get something done.

4. Keep iterating.

You have to start somewhere. Just know that the first iteration of whatever you create will be not up to the mark.

But without creating the first version, there is no possibility of creating the second version.

The journey has to begin, and you will go through several iterations before you are finally happy with what you have produced.

5. Get good help.

Last but not the least, getting good help is not a sign of weakness.

If and when you need help, it is important to drop your ego and ask for a favor, or do some kind of a barter and get the help you need.

How about you?

And now I turn it to you …

What current constraint in your life or career can you flip into a blessing or opportunity?

Flickr Creative Commons Image by Michael May

About the Author: Rajesh “Raj” Setty is a serial entrepreneur based in Silicon Valley. He currently serves as president of WittyParrot, is an award-winning teacher at the Founder Institute, and has authored 13 books. You can read his blog and follow him on him on Facebook or Twitter.

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Comments

  1. Hi Raj,

    The way you turned constraints into a challenge instead of a hindrance is refreshing. About halfway through reading, I thought of Twitter. I had heard of the book, but didn’t know it was you who wrote it. Congratulations on mastering this skill, and thank you for sharing.

    Kind Regards,
    Holly

  2. Marilyn VanderLey :

    Wow! This is one of the best posts I’ve read on Copyblogger. It’s beautifully written and insightful. More importantly, this insight doesn’t have to be confined to the world of writing. It pours over into everyday life. This weekend’s plan is to tackle cleaning walls and taping in preparation for painting? Don’t whine! It’s an opportunity to get some exercise and brings you that much closer to the fun of changing the colors around you.

    • Thanks, Marilyn for the kind words.

      You are totally right that the concept applies to beyond writing. I chose a few examples from the world of writing.

      It has worked magically for me in other areas of life too – mainly in the world of startups :)

      Warmly,
      Rajesh

  3. Thank you, thank you, thank you! Just a few days ago I was feeling restrained and took some time to consider the situation. I came up with your conclusion that a restraint could be a barrier or a blessing, the blessing being a focus on a particular thing and making it happen in a very concise way. One can get to the essence and eliminate the superfluous. Bravo on all you examples. I’m going to keep this and send it to people I know who need it. I’m writing tag lines today for my new website. Perfect!

  4. Rajesh,

    Great read and great points all around. The Shoshin mindset allows us to view each restriction or constraint from anew or original perspective.
    Constraints are only constraints when viewed and compared to something else, if we modify the comparative source, the whole formula changes.

    The beautiful aspect of constraints is that they, in effect, prune your process and are the guards who keep you either on track, or creating at a new level, as you wrote about in the post, reveal that maybe you took a wrong turn somewhere.

    The other very beneficial aspect of constraints is that they force a pause, they enable a brief revaluation, and maybe allow for that badly needed “deep breath”<–that alone is pivotal, as we all can get "caught up" in our own "reality tunnel"..

    Great stuff Rajesh!

    • Thanks a ton, Matt :)

      Warmly,
      Rajesh

      • Of course Rajesh, quality must be recognized and identified as it elevates all individuals impacted.
        We all encounter constraints, such is reality, however, how we deal with them, and at first- how we perceive them is pivotal.
        This is why the whole subject matter is of immense importance to both seasoned business warriors and the new entrepreneur.
        This post is a keeper, and the best course of action is to re-read this once per month…

  5. I think the parameters you are given, in advertising especially, are more like starting points than constraints, to the point that when you’re working on some personal creative project, you can feel paralyzed by the lack of constraint. In advertising, you might have “okay, it’s a 30-second spot, it has to be about our new pickup truck, and we want it to appeal more to women.” You start with thinking of all the potential connections between women and pickup trucks.

    But say you’ve decided to do NaNoWriMo. The novel could be about anything at all. Unless you already have some idea for a book (that hit you out of the blue months or even years ago), you are starting with a blank screen. You look around your desk for inspiration. Stapler. Can you write a 50K word story about staplers??? About a serial killer who staples his victims’ mouths shut? No, probably best to stay away from office supplies altogether. Look out the window. Is it about…trees?

    And so on.

    I’ll also add that sometimes when you’re given new constraints halfway through a project (and you complain “Well, it would have been NICE to know that a month ago!”), it can help you let go of those first ideas that you’ve been clinging to, and move on to better ideas you wouldn’t have thought of previously.

  6. First off, outstanding job on the thank you card campaign. Powerful design, easy to see why this made a big impact on the recipients. Extra bonus print geek points for mentioning embossing. The tactile element surely sealed the deal.

    Second, thanks for offering up this perspective on creativity. It is challenging to work within constraints, yet the limitations end up amplifying the writer’s sense of accomplishment. Twitter forces us to choose our words carefully—what better practice could a writer want?

  7. Wow! Great article Raj!

    I have to admit something. I first found Copyblogger through some search for blogs to comment on in the hopes of getting some traffic to my own site.

    But I’m getting so much from reading all the information here that my first reason for stopping by has gone out the window.

    This post has gotten me thinking a lot about a lot of things. I’ve been whining and complaining (mostly to myself) about the constraints my elderly mother has put on me since she had to move in with me. I feel like I just don’t have the time I need to work on my computer. But now I’ll take another look at my situation and figure out how to work around those constraints and maybe even find some blessings there!

    Also, I like the explanation of effectuation. I’ll really be thinking about that – the difference between the entrepreneurs and the others. I hope to become an entrepreneur so I might have to change my ways!

    Thanks for the good stuff!

    • Very nice of you to say this, Karleen.

      You are right – it’s about the mindset. The moment you view constraints as “blessings in disguise” you will see a different world altogether.

      Warmly,
      Rajesh

  8. Raj, great article! I’m without a car at the moment. I live on the island of Oahu (a blessing in itself) and have always had one. Initially, I viewed being “car-less” as one of the worst possible thing that could happen to me. But then I started thinking that I spend too much time in front of the computer and really need to start walking again, like walking to the bus stop to catch the bus. I used to walk and ride the bus all the time when I was growing up on the mainland so what’s the big deal, right?

    The concepts of effectuation and the beginner’s mind are powerful. I’m going to incorporate them, along with viewing constraints as opportunities, into my thinking and start acting on them. Mahalo nui loa!

    • Thanks, Patrice.

      The key is to remember that we may not have all the “resources” but there never should be lack of “resourcefulness.”

      Effectuation brings that concept to the forefront of your thinking.

      Warmly,
      Rajesh

      • Exactly, Raj. Thanks again.

        • Patrice & Rajesh,

          I’m car-less on O’ahu by design. I decided to return to Hawaii 3 years ago after my elder daughter went ABD on her PhD. Having gotten my daughters that far, I wanted to focus on myself. I felt the combined restrictions and opportunities of life in urban O’ahu would help me focus on MY OWN life-long goal of becoming a professional writer.

          Some unexpected (to say the least) accidents happened along the way, but I’m still focused on that goal. If I didn’t have my current constraints, I believe that I would have been derailed once again.

          Ganesha is one of my favorite ishta-devatas. He is both the symbol of a scribe and a remover of obstacles. But the wisdom to my understanding of this potent deity is in understanding the purpose of the constraint before it’s removed or overcome.

          What is the lesson?

          I think, Rajesh, that your post today queries that in each and every undertaking you shared.

          You saw the obstacles and constraints as gifts to your creative self.

          Thank you for such applicable inspirations.

          • Lori, thanks a ton for sharing your story. Ganesha is my favorite too…

            Whatever situation I end up, the question that always always shifts focus back to where it should be is

            “Now that I am here, where next?”

            This will pull the focus away from the past and bring me back to the moment.

            Once again, thanks for the note here.

            Warmly,
            Rajesh

          • Hey Lori, thanks for finding me on Twitter! Looking forward to chatting more with you about being “car-less” on Oahu!

  9. Good stuff, Rajesh. I’m gonna have to think about whether my projects have too much freedom, and if I can apply a constraint to help boost creativity.

    Sounds like fun!

    • Thanks, Daniel.

      We both know beyond doubt that constraints boost creativity. When you don’t have real constraints, you can manufacture artificial constraints and trick the mind – this leads to the same effect again :)

      Warmly,
      Rajesh

  10. Good stuff, Rajesh. I’m gonna have to think about whether my projects have too much freedom, and if I can apply a constraint to help boost creativity.

    • Thanks, Rahul,

      If you read Mihaly’s book, “Flow” and do some research on the topic, you will find that for you to be in flow (an optimal state where you start losing track of time) you need to get engaged in challenging tasks. To be precise the task has to be at least 4% above your current capacity. The right constraints will help you go there

      Warmly,
      Rajesh

  11. Excellent on constraints and loved effectuation. Thank you

    • Thanks, Dhivakar.

      The concept of effectuation has completely changed the way I look at my startups and everything else in life. Glad you liked it.

      Warmly,
      Rajesh

  12. A few years back I went through a nasty divorce that sent me reeling. When I lost the love of my life, I lost my passion for my life and business. Crazy how those things are connected. I don’t know what came first the mental constraints or the financial constraints. I found ways to embrace the financial constraints and operate my life and business in spite of them. Actually it was during this time that I interviewed you on my Internet radio Show Get More Business when your book “Upbeat Now: Cultivating the Right Attitude to Thrive in Tough Times” http://www.blogtalkradio.com/getmorebusiness/2009/09/25/rajesh-setty–upbeat-now. One concept that I think I remember from your book was that bad, negative attitudes should not be allowed.

    In spite of the need to rebuild myself financially at that time I like the word you used “effectuation” I learned to “identify all the resources (I had) and look(ed) for goals to reach with those resources.”

    • Melody,

      How have you been?

      I remember our conversation and the interview very well, but did not know this background story. Thanks for sharing and also thanks for the kind note here.

      Negative thoughts are a surcharge that we pay voluntarily. Why? Because our thoughts are controlled by us and we are “choosing” the nature and intensity of those. So, we can choose to avoid negative thoughts and stop paying the surcharge unnecessarily.

      I ask people would they voluntarily pay more taxes just for fun. Nobody says yes. But if time is money, negative thoughts are like paying extra taxes.

      Warmly,
      Rajesh

      • Constraints in any form is,”lack of resource”

        Lack of resource in any form will force us to evolve in “better self”

        When constraints hit right on our face some return back to their cave and some decide to “improvise & improve”

        Some “die trying” and some overcome.

        Those who overcame wrote the “legendary stories” (Rajesh Shetty)

        alas! we came to basics. “Are you willing to die trying ? ”

        [ It was amazing to see how you inspired Melody]

        • Thanks for the note, Paresh.

          If you look back at your own life, you will notice that the most memorable stories are when “you experienced growth while you ploughed through the resistance.”

          The moment you accept this, you will start viewing speed bumps, detours and road blocks with a whole new perspective that will really “make the journey beautiful.”

          Warmly,
          Rajesh

  13. Raj,

    2 words: Seth Godin ;) Super post. Adopt the Zen mind. My videos are 1 minute long and posts rarely go beyond 500 to 600 words. My new eBook, The Blogging Manifesto, did reach some 14,000 words but I packed 14,000 words worth of value into the book.

    Power share dude.

    • Ryan, thank you.

      Seth has been one of my heroes for close to a decade. My writing has been hugely influenced by him over the years. He has set a standard that I may never be able to reach but I grow everyday just trying hard.

      Would love to learn more about your book. Kindly send me an email to raj at wittyparrot dot com.

      Warmly,
      Rajesh

  14. Great post. I’m a big believer in using constraints. I’m stuck in one place with a full-time job and a single dad duty. I use this to my advantage by using my extra time and energy to write and build an online presence.

    • Dan, thanks for the note.

      The lack of resources will always be the case in one way or the other. But resourcefulness is available in plenty for all of us.

      All the best!

      Warmly,
      Rajesh

  15. Great to see you on Copyblogger, Rajesh. As a long time follower of yours, I found your article inspiring on many fronts. As a personal development blogger, I talk a lot about goal setting. In context with your article, I got to thinking… isn’t a goal a constraint? When we set goals, we set the boundaries of the constraint. We look at the outcome, the action steps, and set a deadline. This gives us a true framework to work from. It’s like a house; without constraint, we would have stacks of lumber, piles of wallboard, and many bags of cement. When we add the structure of a foundation, framing, and a roof, the constraints make something that we can live in.

    Thanks for adding a new success concept to my vocabulary!

    • John,

      Thank you and how have you been?

      One of the problems with goal setting is that many people are conservative in what goals they go after. They want to be guaranteed to hit the mark. By mixing a few constraints and pushing the standards a bit higher, we set ourselves up for growth even if we miss the mark.

      Thanks again

      Warmly,
      Rajesh

  16. Wow! Great article! This sentence, for me, was by far the best thing I’ve read in a month… “Entrepreneurs identify all the resources they have and look for goals to reach with those resources. This kind of thinking is called effectuation.”. Excellent stuff!

  17. Constraints force creativity.

    You’re given the choice between nothing making do somehow.

    This is a great article that teaches you a bit how to roll with the punches.

  18. I love this article, now, where to start? There are so many things to comment about, it feels like I’ve just read three different articles in the time it takes to read one.

    I wish they would teach these sort of subjects at school, because you’re right, a lot of people do whine, and it proves quite the challenge to get them out of that habit.

    I couldn’t work without constraints, in the design industry they are my best friend. Without them, I would be required to create something that is “unique and brilliant” in a very broad sense, but not being told what I’m meant to be differentiating from. It would be like asking someone to become a tour guide for a location they’ve never been to and know nothing about.

    Constraints are good, like this article. Thanks Rajesh.

    • Thanks Sean for the kind comments.

      When I teach this to student and entrepreneurs, I always urge them to start by introducing one or more artificial constraints in one of their key projects. When we start brainstorming how to get ahead in the light of these new constraints, they will suddenly notice that they were whining for no reason when these constraints were not present.

      In general, things move fast after this kind of an exercise even when they know that this whole exercise was made up.

      Warmly,
      Rajesh

  19. Sundararaman Ramasamy :

    Rajesh,
    Good one. I have already read all that you have mentioned here but Constraints. I loved it. Yes, you are so right. Only the constraints, challenges, obstacles, failures etc. would make anyone perfect and wise. I simply see it as ECG reading, only if it goes up and down that means we are alive otherwise dead. Your articles are always inspiring.
    Regards,
    Sundar

  20. This post is shifting a paradigm for me. Great post right when I needed it. I’m struggling with routine in my life. I’m a “fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants” kinda gal. There are blessings and opportunities in a routine – the structure, the assurance that items are completed, the freedom to play, once the work is done. I can do this! Thanks!!

    • Aimee,

      Thank you for the comment. A close friend always says to me, “As long as you are above the ground, there will ALWAYS be opportunities.”

      In reality, we see what we want to see. If we want to see problems, that’s what we see. If we want to count our blessings, that’s what we see. Mindset influences EVERYTHING.

      Warmly,
      Rajesh