ELM19: The Art of Innovation

The ELM19 guest keynote speaker was artist Phil Hansen, who joined us to talk about how the limitations he has faced as an artist have been the very things that have sparked his creativity and helped him find new ways of approaching his work. While art is very different from legal and claims work, the message of his talk was one that could apply equally to anyone in both their work and their life. 

Confronting Limitations 

Phil told the audience that he’d wanted to be an artist since he was a child in the Pacific Northwest. His interest in art began during middle school, and in high school, he took his first art class. Early on, he discovered that his favorite technique for creating images was pointillism, in which images are made up of tiny individual dots arranged to create a larger image. This method of making art took a very steady hand. 

When Phil was in college, spending a lot of time creating artwork from these tiny dots, he developed a tremor in his arm from holding his pens so tightly. This prompted him to hold even tighter to try to increase his control, but that made the shaking even worse. When he eventually sought a medical diagnosis, Phil learned that he had permanent nerve damage, and it was not possible to treat the tremor. All the doctor could offer was advice to “embrace the shake.” 

At first, Phil wasn’t sure how to do this. He felt that it simply wasn’t possible to continue working as an artist. But even then, he knew it was important to continually rethink one’s assumptions in life, and in work, to maintain mental flexibility and keep the mind open to possibility. So, Phil decided he would find a way to take his doctor’s advice. 

Success Out of Constraints 

To find a way around his tremor issue, Phil tried new methods of creating art. For example, he painted with his feet, began working in other media besides drawing, and adopted a larger scale format where the small tremor in his hand wouldn’t have as much impact on his output. The tremor had forced Phil to find new ways of making art. His limitation had pushed him creatively, enabling him to make art he may never have thought of making before the tremor. 

To push it a step further, Phil tried imposing other constraints on his work to see where it would lead him. For example, when he decided to make a work of art for less than a dollar, it spurred him to ask a barista at a coffee shop if he could have some spare cups. She obliged, and Phil stacked the cups to create a makeshift three-dimensional canvas on which he created a pencil portrait for only eighty cents. Even more experiments with self-imposed limitations followed, such as making art based on other people’s stories and work that was designed to be destroyed in the end. 

The breakthrough discovery Phil made was that his creativity was sparked by the constraints of his life. Every time he opened himself to a more unusual method of creation, it generated new avenues in his art and career. Greater success followed. 

Limitations vs. Self-Limiting Beliefs 

Based on his experience, Phil believes that the key to overcoming daunting challenges lies in the difference between the limitation and the self-limiting belief. A limitation is something that gets in your way, but a self-limiting belief is something your mind puts in your way based on your beliefs. “My limitation is that my hand shakes. My self-limiting belief was that it meant I couldn’t do art.” 

A limitation does indeed block some paths, but a self-limiting belief blocks all paths. Every challenge we’re confronted with is composed of these two things, and how we react to each has a profound impact on whether we succeed. This dynamic can often be seen in small teams of colleagues. When everyone works toward a common goal and new challenges come up, most people change their perspective to be able to continue their progress. But others may lose the path because they are focused on their belief that the new constraint will prevent them from moving forward. 

If you find yourself in this situation, Phil suggests ignoring the belief and focusing on the limitation. That’s where the creativity enters. Think about your obstacles and roadblocks. Take a figurative step back, and give yourself the breathing room to perceive the self-limiting belief as a separate, isolated thing that does not have to stop you from making progress.  

Phil believes that when you keep “showing up” and engaging in that process, that’s where the amazing possibilities come in. “The constraints that we face are the best place to harness creativity, to get outside of the norms that we have, to rethink things and stand out from the crowd.”