Constraints Provide Clear Direction

In 1994, Brian Eno, ambient music pioneer, was bereft with musical ideas. In his own words he was “quite lost, actually.”

Then he was approached by Microsoft designers Mark Malamud and Erik Gavriluk. The designers needed a jingle to be included in the startup of Microsoft’s soon to be released operating system Windows 95.

Eno jumped at the opportunity. He said, “I really appreciated someone coming along and saying, ‘Here’s a specific problem - solve it.”

Microsoft wanted the usual “inspiring, universal, blah-blah, da-da-da, optimistic” piece. None of that inspired Eno. What did inspire him was the last line of the proposal, “it must be 3.25 seconds long.”

“I thought this was so funny and an amazing thought to actually try to make a little piece of music. It’s like making a tiny little jewel.”

Eno’s creative block faded. He created 84 little pieces of music for Microsoft to choose from, one becoming the iconic version heard during the startup of Windows 95. Listen below if you don’t remember.

Those tiny pieces made a lasting impression on Eno. He said:

“I got completely into this world of tiny, tiny little pieces of music. I was so sensitive to microseconds at the end of this that it really broke a logjam in my own work. Then when I’d finished that and I went back to working with pieces that were like three minutes long, it seemed like oceans of time.”

Constraints provide clear direction.


Rewind thirty seven years.

Life magazine had reported that illiteracy among school children was at an all time high. The report concluded that children’s books were too boring.

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Theodore Geisel, known as Dr. Seuss, received a challenge from his publisher. He was tasked to write a children’s book that children couldn’t put down. There was one big constraint. Geisel was asked that the book be limited to 250 distinct words selected from a standard first grader’s vocabulary list.

Nine months later, Geisel handed his publisher “The Cat in the Hat” using 236 of the words given to him. The Cat in the Hat sold one million copies in the first three years and has sold millions since.

Three years later, Geisel was challenged again. This time Bennett Cert, co-founder of Random House, bet $50 that Geisel couldn’t write an engaging children’s book with 50 or fewer distinct words. Geisel won the challenge by producing his most popular book “Green Eggs and Ham” using exactly 50 unique words.

Constraints provide clear direction.


Brian Eno and Theodore Geisel suffered from something we all face, too much choice.

More options don’t increase action. Unlimited options paralyze. We freeze and are unable to execute. And if we do make a choice, we’re often left less satisfied, always thinking about the other choices we chose not to do.

One strategy to overcome this is to do less; focus on only a small set of activities while burning the bridges with all others. Bridge burning has been a topic we’ve written about here, here, here and here.

The general takeaway, however, is not mere selective focus. Brian Eno and Theodore Geisel both were laser focused on their niches. Even while knee deep in their fields they continued to be paralysed. There still was too much choice.

It’s as if both men were headed to a certain town. They eliminated millions of other towns, but the number of ways to get to their destinations were still practically endless. Should they walk? Hitch hike? Ride a bike? Ride a train? Ride a plane? Drive? Well, if they drive, then which way?

By limiting themselves to the equivalent of one unusual form of transportation, Eno and Geisel were free to experiment. Each created something totally new and unique.

Doing less, not more, works. Constraining more, not less, is even better.

Don’t be the donkey between two bales of hay—unable to decide which one you want, and, in the meantime, starving to death.

Find a niche. But don’t stop there. Consciously limit your field of thought. Limit your choices by limiting your color palette, words, tools, and potential avenues.

Not only is constraining choice a fun challenge, it forces you to experiment and see things differently.

When navigating uncharted waters, it is clear: constraints provide clear direction.


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Great article, @seaniddings!

For those interested in constraining what they write, someone built a text editor built-in with the 1,000 most-common words in the English language. It’s a fun thing to play with. https://splasho.com/upgoer5/

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Very interesting. If we observe, sports is an activity with constraints. Take tennis for instance, you cannot hit long nor wide but have to play within the rules of the game, which to me looks more like a constraint. Does that improve quality of play ? Yes. Otherwise, play would be reckless. Wherever we have constraints, the level of activity is definitely intense. Game of chess is one that comes to mind immediately which helps to focus by having constraints. I cannot immediately think of something where this does not work. If someone can identify/point an activity that is not intense because of constraints, it would be a great analysis. @seaniddings one more interesting post… Great!

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@ganesh, great insight! Formula1 racing is another great example of what you talked about. The teams develop cars within a narrow set of rules… and the competition is fierce.

Zooming out, here’s a metaphor from Mathew 7:13, as well:

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

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@rileynewport & @ganesh thanks for the thoughts on sports as another activity with constraints. I’d point out that each has their own rules and to push the boundaries each athlete has to get more creative. It gets harder and harder, meaning athletes must continuously adapt.

Take for instance Roger Penske. As we wrote in our model study he and his team would utilize:

"Tricks like dipping their engine in vats of acid helped shave off a few pounds. Polishing their car’s wheels to a spotless shine also aided in performance at a time when no one cleaned wheels. Karl Kainhofer said, “When we first showed up at Indy with polished chrome wheels in 1969, the other teams laughed at us. Now everyone does it. Because, quite simply, cleaner cars run faster.”

In business the rules might not be as clear as in sports, but they’re there too. Limited budgets and time are often seen as negative constraints. However, when those negatives become internal motivators, great things can happen.

As we wrote about in our first book - Ken Iverson, working at Illium in 1954, suggested he build his own pipe machine for the company. Pipe machines at the time cost $250,000. Illium’s owner gave Iverson $5,000 to build it. Iverson got motivated, creative and was successful in building the machine with his meager budget.

Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, started out with limited money, but that didn’t stop him. He was motivated to work around his budget and time constraints.

He said:

"…I couldn’t really afford to buy the pieces I needed. I couldn’t buy a teletype, so I had to design my own terminal. The only thing that was free (because I had no money) was a home TV to see characters on. I got a keyboard for $60, which was amazingly low-priced then. That was the most expensive thing to getting my terminal built. Then it was just a matter of designing logic to put dots on a TV screen that add up to the letters of the alphabet and spell out what’s coming from another computer faraway… "

When designing his first computers, Wozniak said:

“… I would take the new chips and redesign some computer I’d done before because I’d come up with a clever idea about how I could save two more chips. “I’ll do it in 42 chips instead of 44 chips.” The reason I did that was because I had no money. I could never build one. Chips back then were . . . like I said, to buy a computer built, it was like a down payment on a good house. So, because I could never build one, all I could do was design them on paper and try to get better and better and better. I was competing with myself. But that’s just the story of how my skill got so good. It’s because I could never build anything, I just competed with myself to come up with ideas that nobody else would come up with…”

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This is an awesome quote Riley…
Reminded me of quite a few business examples : Viaweb, Guidewire, Aravind

The first one referred to it as running upstairs.
The second one referred to it as “uphill both directions in the snow”.
The third one set up a series of seemingly irreconcilable constraints based entirely on intention to maximize compassion.

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Portfolio construction was the first thing that came to my mind after reading the title of this post. Quite often (esp. when we are bored) we let mediocre ideas creep into our portfolio when we should rather be loading up on our top few picks. The trick that I use to prevent such a situation is by putting a constraint on the maximum number of stocks I can have in my portfolio. It forces me to think much harder whether the new company is worth blocking a precious spot on my ‘team’ or not.

So yes, constraints do provide clear direction. Thanks, @seaniddings for this insightful reminder.

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