The 3 B’s of creativity : Beethoven, Black Sabbath and Blindness

There is a school of thought that says that creativity is enhanced by having all the resources you need.  There is an equal and opposite view that suggests that limitations can be the spur to creativity.  It is to this view that I want to turn.  Starting with the gypsy jazz musician Django Reinhardt:

Tony Iommi accidentally ‘copied’ Django’s loss after an accident in a sheet metal factory where he lost the tips of the middle and ring finger of his right hand. Inspired by Reinhardt, Iommi made plastic covers for his fingers by melting plastic bottles and dipping them in while the plastic was soft enough to be shaped.

What was Beethoven’s impediment?  And Ray Charles?  Can anyone tell us more on these characters?

The parallel lesson from my background in pharmaceuticals is that many of the world’s breakthrough therapies were not discovered in sterile glass corporate buildings, but often in rather unpromising conditions, by people who had been starved of budget, resources and attention by the corporate centre.  I’m not suggesting that this should become a modus operandi for running innovative businesses.  Just that sometimes opulence does not produce the conditions where people give that extra effort that leads to innovative breakthroughs.

At a personal level, give someone all s/he needs and he may use those resources to come up with something ingenious.  Tell him or her that it’s impossible or there isn’t time and they might spend a lot more effort proving you wrong.  Clearly this is not an absolute truth in all circumstances, but it’s widely ignored.

For more posts on creativity see The Velvet UndergroundJazz Fusion, and Deep Purple on improvisation.

16 responses to “The 3 B’s of creativity : Beethoven, Black Sabbath and Blindness

  1. This from Linkedin:

    Tracy Aspel BCL hDipBS • Hi Peter, I would love to have read more on that piece. Does having a disadvantage of some sort make people more resourceful(that’s how I interpreted your post), and I think as you pointed out they may very well become more resourceful but it isn’t a guarantee. I think those who make the leap from disadvantage to creative advantage have a greater impact in terms of their story carrying more potency for people who feel stuck or that any change is impossible. Thanks for sharing this post.


  2. More from Linkedin:

    J. Herbert Bond • It’s supported by recent studies in brain science that show that a bit of push back – constraints, if you will – actually stimulate the creative mind and result in better ideas.

    Scott Dadich wrote this in Wired magazine: “Constraint offers an unparalleled opportunity for growth and innovation. Think of a young tree, a sapling. With water and sunshine, it can grow tall and strong. But include some careful pruning early in its development – removing low-hanging branches – and the tree will grow taller, stronger, faster. It won’t waste precious resources on growth that doesn’t serve its ultimate purpose. The same principle applies to design. Given fewer resources, you have to make better decisions.” He went on to say, “the imposition of limits doesn’t stifle creativity – it enables it.”

    Here’s a disquieting disconnect that I find particularly relevant to music: How about anger as a spur to creativity? At Apple Computer, we romantically remember Steve Jobs as the poster-boy for creating an environment where creativity thrived. But he had a seemingly anti-creativity flip side – his anger, often directed at staff. Yet, recent studies in brain science support the value of anger within a culture of creativity. Wired mag recently mentioned a paper by Matthijs Baas, Carsten De Dreu, and Bernard Nijstad in The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. “Their first experiment was straightforward, demonstrating that anger was better at promoting “unstructured thinking” on a creativity task. The second experiment elicited anger directly in the subjects, before asking them to brainstorm on ways to improve the condition of the natural environment. Once again, people who felt angry generated more ideas. These ideas were also deemed more original, as they were thought of by less than 1 percent of the subjects.”

    Constraints can be positioned as idea stimulators and emotions can be channeled to spur creative thinking.


  3. And still more:

    Mark Duckworth • Having it all is usually always a drag on creativity.Its no coincidence that historically the most creative musicians for example, usually come from the more deprived of poorer areas of Britain. If you’ve got nothing, you have to use your imagination to create your own roadmap if you are going to make truly orginal music. If its all on plate, you try less. For example, just compare Coldplay(Devon) to Joy Division(Salford)…(!) lol

    Peter Firth, Dip Mgmt (Open) • yes. Being a keyboard player; In the old days I could choose between a limited amount of sounds and then compose (be creative). Now you can find yourself trying to find the ultimate sound from infinite voices before you begin to create.


  4. And more:

    Julian Paul • I believe constraints are a major contributor to creativity, i recently watched a program on the first world war and thoroughly enjoyed the discussion on how Prisoners of War used creative and ingenious ways to escape. Obstacles and problems often constrain our ability to get to where we are going but sheer determination often produces some of the most creative thinking and the most innovative solutions.


  5. This, from Lynette Jensen in Australia: Some great links

    I’m a big believer in the importance of constraints in creativity – they provide challenge and therefore much inspiration.

    Here are some articles from Psychology Today:


  6. Still more from Linkedin:

    David Mayle • When I were a practising engineer, the ultimate term of abuse for a design tended to be ‘Her Majesty’s Shipyard Engineering!’. Nothing about these folks per se, but when they had a problem to solve, their terms of engagement often encouraged them to fix it irrespective of cost. Too often this combined with other expediencies and led to an ‘anything that can drag itself over the finish line in time’ criterion for being considered an appropriate solution.

    I know many express surprise when I admit that back in the day we worked with targets for unit cost, reliability, maintainability and so on from the very beginning. This approach later became codified as ‘Right First Time’ and for me at least demonstrated the value of taking the constraints on board at the outset, rather than accepting future iterations as inevitable. (Takeuchi & Nonaka, 1986, HBR 64,1 makes some very similar arguments).



  7. The White Stripes are masters of using constraints to spark creativity. I remember hearing Jack White saying that he created the band specifically to implement rules. No guitar solos on first two albums. Stripped down drumming. Only dressing in black, white, and red. No bass. And look at the result — some of the best rock ‘n’ roll of the last 15 years. Why not try this with your advertising or communications programs? Instead of an unlimited budget and a campaign that goes in a million different directions, hem it all in. Be specific about your goals. Use rules. Get granular.


  8. Thank you Michael. Here’s another insight :

    Ken Twomey • There is often a freshness in going back to basics and seeing what can be created. One of the successes in recent times is the production of STOMP that was touring nationally. Using basic, everyday items they have taken percussion to a higher level of entertainment.To me this goes back to Marks point of understanding why we are doing something and using your imagination rather than simply doing it because we have to/can do it by using a tool. It also helps to refocus from developing a tool/system to that of dealing with the actual issue.At work, I often go back to first principles to understand an issue, then work on how to address it. It is amazing how often the issue you thought you had is in fact not the main one…


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