Usually, when we think of limits, we think of restrictions that hold us back, impeding our free energies; we think of what we cannot do. In fact, limits are necessary characteristics of every phenomenon, person, organisation, and creative pursuit. Limits, edges, and boundaries are the determining factors that give things their appearance, structure, and definition.
In the physical sense, a limit’s qualities—whether it is impervious or porous, rounded or flat, and how textured and flexible it is—can determine a great deal about a given object. When working with a particular substance, even density can be a limit, as it determines which tools or processes are needed to shape and change its form. Limits therefore are not only the edges, ends, and walls that determine key aspects about a person, community, or object, but are also embodied in its very characteristics and substance.
Limits also abound in our minds. Here, they are the criteria that we use to shape the course and content of our work. Limits give us focus, simplicity, and the narrowness necessary to create impact and leverage. In this way, limits enable rather than hinder the creative process. In the case of art, you limit yourself when you choose your materials; in writing, when you choose your subject matter; in building, when you choose a site. Limits are simple reflections of our choices and our particular channels for action and thought. As such, they are not to be avoided or barged through, but worked and collaborated with, tested, and known. Limits create space. Without walls, you have no room in which to work, no container for the substance and content of your work.
In the crux of these two sets of limits, those of the physical or natural world and those we choose for ourselves, we find our institutions, businesses, organisations, and work. Because we are creative participants in shaping our institutions and world, our work takes on a lasting quality; our limits become embodied in the materials and processes that we commit to. By intentionally determining the nature of our own chosen limits, we can deepen our relationship to the limits that are given by circumstance, history, and the physical world. We can subtly listen to the limits of the world and continuously respond.
By approaching our work in this way, we can imbue it with a quality of ongoing learning, allowing us to constantly embody and re-embody new skills. In fact, activity results in embodied learning regardless of whether it is skillful or not. Habit, for example, is the embodied learning of unconscious activity. Skill is derived when one adds to this naturally occurring embodied learning a practice of listening and a willingness to evolve their limits in response to the limits of their peers and the world. Every time we speak, think, or work, we are living a particular set of limits. Some are explicit, some implicit. Some are intentional and some not. The more attentive we are to our limits, the more effective those limits will be at bringing about clarity, simplicity, and leverage in our actions.
Let us take the simple example of hammering a nail on the head. There is a more and a less effective way to do it, determined by a combination of the limits and possibilities provided by the wood, the nail, the hammer, and the embodied skill of the carpenter. The skill requires clear, direct movement focused on a single point, and it takes practice to learn. Practice in this case is actually a process of unlearning the extra, useless, and cluttering actions that confuse one’s efforts, leaving only the simplest and most effective gestures and movements. You can immediately tell when someone has hammered thousands of nails or when it is their first time.
If we look from this vantage point at a complex social field – wherein multiple actors with different mindsets are involved, cause and effect are separated by time and space, and no precedents have been set – the unlearning of cluttering actions can be likened to the alignment of the system’s actors, and the further clarification of each actor’s individual role and activity set.
Effective action in addressing a particular challenge in this context requires a systemic view and an agreement of which leverage points in the system should be acted upon. If actors in a system do not share the same intentions in regards to their limits, their actions will not yield the simplicity that comes with embodied skill. This would be like a carpenter trying to hit more than one nail at once. It will not work. On the contrary, actions will only confuse one another, adding to the instability of the problem. Once the leverage points are agreed upon however, then the appropriate skills and capacities can be cultivated, and eventually, systemic change may emerge.
By unlearning the actions that contribute to complex challenges in a given system, we can co-evolve the most effective limits in our own contexts, yielding natural, simple solutions that do exactly the job intended and nothing more. The substance of this work involves constantly listening for the most elegant and effective solutions available and limiting and iterating effective actions.
In the natural world, failure is built into the learning process, and only by letting go what fails and refining what succeeds, can we embody effective skill. In our work at Reos Partners, we create a space within which we can iterate successes and failures together with our clients, thereby finding effective ways to unlearn the activities that are creating their problems. This is also the process through which we unlearn as an organisation, revealing how best to serve our clients and peers.
This kind of unlearning can be seen as an evolution of the limitations that enable creativity: a refinement of the walls that define our space and a paring down of our activities to reveal the more elegant, natural, effective, and renewable solutions available in a particular context.