Unlearning Life’s Constraints

It feels as though all my newsletters have been leading up to this one. We began with expanding our understanding of creativity as responding to life’s constraints and continued to explore this concept through cultivating imaginationvision, and hope.In my last newsletter, I asked the question: How do we create more possibilities for ourselves? And mirrored the response: How many more ways can we moveBoth of these questions were pointing towards an underlying context: the answer is dependent on the constraints. I’ve argued for a liberatory imagination that questions life’s constraints and presented the benefits of creative constraints, but never asked the question: 

What are the right amount of constraints for a creative life? This is a question of creative agency. 

Agency is a sense of control. Creative agency is a practice of cultivating control. The more you understand your choices, the more you can choose wisely. Let me explain with an analogy: I was recently working on a complicated poem. I had chosen a very strict structure and precise topic that resulted in many hours of searching for each right word. Normally I love writing poetry because of its emergent process: I never know what I’m going to say; I just start with an idea and see where I end up. But constraints can also facilitate language, as the poet and theologian Pádraig Ó Tuama beautifully reminds us: “In poetry, form can hold the things in us that feel formless.” (1) And so I asked myself: Is the form serving the poem? And the answer kept coming back yes; the tight constraints were getting me closer to the truth. I knew my choices and felt agency in determining my process; I was in control even as I struggled. But the stakes were low; every time a word or phrase didn’t fit, I could erase and start again. This is harder with life; career or relationship decisions are not as easily reversible, and yet, the question is the same: Are the given constraints serving my life

We often say the phrase “If only I could…”, but rarely do we truly question what’s holding us back. There are the real constraints of systemic oppression that purposefully restrict mobility for marginalized communities, though we can also unlearn the limiting beliefs we inherit from these systems. I begin all my classes with the concept of unlearning so that my students actively question the foundation of their understanding about society and creativity. As a white person, I’ve had to purposefully unlearn what my privilege shielded me from; to change my lens from entitlement to equity. But unlearning is not easy: 

“…as human beings we are strongly disposed to building a schematic understanding of the world, what it is like, and how it works. Such understanding is built upon past experiences and is culturally informed and reinforced. We are reluctant to alter this worldview even in the light of experience and evidence to the contrary. In this way unlearning is challenging for the individual because of ‘the loss of prior ways of seeing reality—the loss of fundamental assumptions which until now had brought certainty and security.’”

(2) R Rushmer, Unlearning in health care

So even if life’s constraints are holding us back, at least they are familiar. Often only deep unlearning — a major event that dramatically changes one’s perspective (3) — can push us to question our life’s circumstances.This just happened to me.  

I recently lost the affordable home that was making it possible for me to sustain being a part-time professor. I had already been struggling to find other work that I could balance with teaching and writing, constantly straddling a complicated equation of affordability, stability, and flexibility to find happiness. Now that I am again facing the reality of scarcity housing in the Bay Area, I suddenly comprehended just how narrow my avenue of success is. So when I asked myself the question: Is there another way? I realized I had more control. I am not convinced that teaching is my calling; though I have felt more and more alignment with writing. I have only ever tried to make it in the Bay, but more and more loved ones are leaving. If I truly want to prioritize writing, then I need to structure life’s constraints to serve that purpose. Which is why I have just given notice for teaching next year and am beginning a nation-wide job hunt for a way to support my dream. I am entering into the unknown, but I also feel the breadth of opportunity and ability to choose what’s best for me. My given constraints were holding me to survival mode; in letting go, I can find where I thrive. 

I understand this path is not open to everyone; I do not have family responsibilities holding me to a place. But I do believe it is worth questioning what constraints you have creative control over; perhaps what’s restricting you can be unlearned. Or maybe it’s time for you to step into a new way of being. 

Living is a creative act,
Evelyn Thorne

Everyday Creativity Tip

I find that when I’m swimming in a complex situation, it is best to write it all down. I suggest drawing a mind map of your life’s constraints including your responsibilities, budget, expenses, career trajectory, and relationships. Try to visualize how these factors interact with each other; this is a picture of the space your life inhabits. Then write a list of your life goals: career ambitions, hobbies, travel plans, bucket list. Do your life goals fit within your mind map? Or does it feel too constraining? The good news is this is just an exercise; you can easily move the lines. Try out different combinations of constraints to see which solutions open more possibilities. And prioritize your life goals. What needs to change to achieve the biggest priority? If you can edit the mind map to support this goal, can you do it in real life? Ask yourself seriously. 


1. On Being with Krista Tippet, “A New Imagination of Prayer”, with Pádraig Ó Tuama and Marilyn Nelson: https://onbeing.org/programs/padraig-o-tuama-and-marilyn-nelson-a-new-imagination-of-prayer/
2. R Rushmer, “Unlearning in health care”, Quality and Safety in Health Care, 2004, p.ii12
3. R Rushmer, “Unlearning in health care”, Quality and Safety in Health Care, 2004, p.ii11

Originally published February 24, 2020 on the Creativity in Context Newsletter by Evelyn Thorne.

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Living is creative act

Published by Evelyn Thorne

Evelyn is a writer, educator, and facilitator who helps people unlearn misconceptions and limiting beliefs about their creative identities.

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