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.
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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