A couple of years after I'd left my secular assimilated lifestyle for an Orthodox Jewish life, I met a woman who'd once been immersed in her life as an artist.
She'd painted and sculpted whatever she felt compelled to create, clothed herself as her spirit moved her, and hung out in Greenwich Village.
There were no boundaries or limitations on how she could express herself.
"Wasn't it difficult to channel your art in a religious way?" I asked her. "I mean, after you were used to painting and sculpting whatever you wanted, wasn't it difficult to limit yourself after you entered the more structured and limiting world of Orthodox Judaism?"
Nodding to herself, her brow wrinkled in thought before she said, "I wouldn't say 'difficult'...."
She paused again, searching for the right words until she finally said, "Yes, it's true that I can't create whatever I want—although in a way I can, because my soul expresses different and better aspects now—but my art became better." She pursed her lips, thinking over what she was saying, then she nodded. "Yeah," she said. "I feel that Orthodox Judaism actually improves your art."
"Really?" I said. After having read books by people who felt confined by Orthodox Judaism, it was startling to hear such a contrasting view. "Having your art conform to Orthodox standards actually improves your art?"
"Yes," she said. "Because without limitations, there is no real creativity."
Now, that really stumped me.
In so many different ways, the secular world always insists that creativity demands total uninhibited freedom.
And throughout my life, I kept seeing that the definition of good art in any field was always how much it pushed past the current boundaries—whether the end product was actually any good or not.
For example, the highly lauded field of "experimental art" or "experimental music" is often merely something that hasn't been done yet.
And at this point, what is left to do is often ugly, disturbing, and in bad taste.
Noting my perplexity, she explained, "If you can just do anything you want, then what's the challenge in that? How can you be truly creative and how can you even begin the cultivation of artistic genius if you just do 'whatever'?"
She told me to imagine a pipe channeling water toward a certain destination.
The very act of channeling the water causes the water to be limited in its direction and its form.
Yet that same "limited" water is much more productive and valuable than if it were just flooding around everywhere with no direction or purpose.
"When you can only create within certain limitations," she continued, "then that forces you to think outside the box and to stretch your mind in ways you never would have before. And doing that increases your creativity and makes your art even better."
Needless to say, she's right.
Many people complain about the formulaic structure of movies today. Many novels resemble each other too, just in different genres. The same characters pop up in different guises, all expressing the same ideas in different voices.
And then yet another boundary is crossed, which seems either exciting or distressing, depending which side of the boundary you stand on. But that eventually becomes copied ad naseam until the next boundary is violated.
Breaking boundaries isn't necessarily creativity.
It takes no innovation to say, "What are the taboos of society and how can I push past them?"
For example, if your society frowns on stealing, it takes no genius to identify that boundary or to break through it. You just go out and steal something.
Likewise, self-indulgent expression takes little creativity or genius. Your emotions merely lead you to chafe against a society that doesn't cater to your individual quirks or tastes. You chafe against it and then you rant against it with mind-numbing slogans and meaningless symbols. Maybe you even express your self-righteous ranting in a book or via some other art in a way that seems fresh at the time, but will seem shallow and melodramatic in another generation or two.
And despite all the hype and self-congratulations of those who indulge themselves this way, there's no real creativity there either.
The above applies to any creative endeavor, which is why we quip, "Necessity is the mother of invention."
Inventors create because something is missing.
Real innovators create because of the limits.
Genuine creativity and genius is born from limitation.