Ep. 62: How do restrictions and limitations INCREASE our creativity? With Dr. Patricia Stokes

Photo by Edu Lauton on Unsplash

September 29, 2020

One thing that we have all experienced, like never before, in this global pandemic and the quarantines that come with it, have been restrictions, limitations, and constraints – personally, professionally, and academically. This has led a lot of us to look back longingly at the status quo, and comment that we just want things to go back to normal, back to the way they always were. But what if these restrictions and limitations could actually increase our creativity and innovation? Dr. Stokes, author of “Creativity from Constraints,” discusses how and why to embrace constraints and use them to our advantage.


My guest today is Dr. Patricia Stokes. She has spent time in the worlds of art, business, and education. She is currently an Adjunct Professor of Psychology at Barnard College, Columbia University; and is the author of the book, “Creativity from Constraints: The Psychology of Breakthrough.”


  • Musicians are creative people. So are artists, advertisers, educators, parents, builders, and people in just about every vocation. While there certainly ARE very real negative effects of pandemic limitations (especially within the performing arts world), that I don’t intend to minimize, Dr. Stokes argues in her book that constraints and limitations are a catalyst for breakthrough and innovation.
  • Stokes describes the differences between problems/constraints of scarcity vs. problems/constraints of opportunity.
  • It is encouraging and inspiring to realize that our limitations do not need to restrict our creativity; on the contrary, these limitations can be reframed as a boon to our creativity and innovation.
  • Stokes studies problem solving and creativity/innovation as the products of problem solving. She says, “What I do is break a problem down into the structure of its solution. I learned how to do this in art school (I painted at Pratt) and advertising (I was a copywriter at J. Walter Thompson and a creative group head at Ted Bates and Co.). At Columbia (Ph.D.), I learned how to take what I already knew and turn it into a paired constraint model for analyzing past, and facilitating future, innovations.”
  • “You can’t think outside the box of your expertise, but you can borrow from other boxes to make your box bigger.” – Dr. Stokes
  • Only the Numbers Count math program: Dr. Stokes says, “My own most satisfying innovation is an early math intervention called Only the NUMBERS count.   It was designed using paired constraints. In kindergarten and 1st grade, a count-and-combine chart and an explicit base-10 count (11 is called ten-one) are used to teach place-value, addition and subtraction (single and double digit). In 2nd and 3rd grades, a multi-operation chart is used to teach multiplication, division, and fractions simultaneously.   It is very satisfying. The children in the program are learning far more than required by the Common Core.” See Other Resources (below) for more info.

Connect/Other Resources

  • I reference the article, For A More Creative Brain, Embrace Constraints: Limitations Inspire Better Thinking, by Thomas Oppong. The following article quotes are used:
    • “Limitations are crucial to achieving breakthrough innovation. Use them to your advantage. Obstacles boost brainpower. You actually need constraints to get good at creating something remarkable.”
    • “Constraints force you to think. Believe it, or not, human creativity benefits from constraints.”
    • “According to psychologists, when you have less to work with, you actually begin to see the world differently. With constraints, you dedicate your mental energy to acting more resourcefully. When challenged, you figure out new ways to be better. The most successful creative people know that constraints don’t limit their efforts — in fact, they give their minds the impetus to leap higher. People who invent new products or launch unconventional ideas are often inspired by their constraints… Don’t freak out about your constraints, embrace them… Instead of trying to remove them, use them to your advantage.”
  • Using Paired Constraints to Solve the Creativity Problem presentation (PDF)
  • The Psychology of Limitations: How and Why Constraints Can Make You More Creative, by Belle Beth Cooper


Dr. Stokes describes her emotional connection and responses to the Russian-ness (her family is Russian) of The Symphony of Psalms, composed by Igor Stravinsky (3rd movement):

Closing Words

Here at Enhance Life with Music, we take a look at the benefits of music and its impact on our everyday lives through the lens of science, medicine, sports, and other disciplines . I’m including some links in today’s show notes for previous episodes that are evergreen and especially applicable this time of year:

Thank you so much for joining me today. Until next week, may your life be enhanced with music.



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