In the early days of the Rolling Stones, when the band was playing small pubs in Richmond, Mick Jagger had very little room to move on those tiny stages. He was forced to improvise dance moves he could perform on the spot. These became a quirky signature, part of the band’s appeal as the Stones rose to fame and started playing arenas. Strangely, after Mick found himself on stages the size of a battleship deck, with unlimited room to roam, his dancing got worse, in Keith Richards’ opinion. It was as if he now had too much freedom.
Adam Morgan dangles this beguiling story in his new business book A Beautiful Constraint. His point is that we should welcome constraints, not rue them. Because they force us to find solutions we otherwise never would have discovered.
The book has been embraced by advertising types, who like to think of their job — telling stories in 30 seconds — as akin to “doing ballet in a phone booth” (as Terry O’Reilly recently put it). But any of us could think of circumstances where the beautiful-constraint principle proved true.
I had a poetry professor who assigned a useful exercise. You had to write a poem that justified along the right margin. In other words, every line had to end exactly at the right hand side of the page. You weren’t allowed to tweak the spacing on the computer. You had to choose words of the right length, so that when you laid them down they snugged exactly into the available space. It forced you to stretch your vocabulary, to contrive a whole different voice, sometimes. In that constrained space, you had to dance like Mick.
Big budgets, big space, big freedom — these things make people lazy, Morgan argues.
I’m coming to think of the One Big Day project as a beauty-of-constraint exercise. The constraint is time. If you have only one day to try to knock off some task that otherwise might have taken you weeks, you have to approach it differently. You can’t noodle around in the margins. You have to swim right into the current. You can’t think about whether what you’re doing is polished enough to deliver to someone. You just have to start doing it.