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Boundaries, creativity and freedom

When I was at high school, I really struggled with the suffocating boundaries that the school placed on my ability to express my individuality. I went to the same school for 12 years, and the rules were largely the same for junior and high school. I didn't struggle with these boundaries at all in junior school, but when I got to high school things got pretty steamy.

To my mind, if I wanted to grow my hair, that should have been my decision to make - suffice to say that I got sent to the hair committee at least twice a month for a formal inspection, with regular detentions that followed.

If I wanted to work hard from Monday to Thursday, get all of my work done, and then take Friday off, I believed that should have been my decision to make. My teachers didn't quite see it the same way, and a few detentions followed.

If I wanted to surf for the sheer joy of surfing, rather than compete in a team sport, then in my opinion that should have been my decision to make. Somehow I eventually managed to get this one right, but I think it was because I was totally rubbish at the team sports I was forced to play, so the teachers were happy to quietly ignore the fact that I stopped playing. No detentions for this one :)

Having these extreme boundaries set for me for most of my life, I never learnt how to set my own boundaries, so when I finally finished high school and went out into the big wide world, I ran after everything I was never allowed to do at school, and I did it to the extreme. It was awesome for a while, until it wasn't. My lifestyle for the next few years was totally unsustainable and actually quite unfulfilling, but it served its purpose to energetically balance the scale for me.

After this period, to operate more effectively in the world I knew that I needed more structure and discipline, but I was going to do it on my terms. Bit by bit I learnt how to set my own rhythms, structure and discipline - sufficient to provide me with the right balance between the boundaries that made me productive, and the freedom to be creative, spontaneous and expressive.

Throughout our lives, there is a tension we all need to manage between our boundaries (self imposed or set by others) and our freedom, and yet I don't think we pay enough attention to how this needs to change at different stages of our lives.

Last Friday I had a fascinating conversation with a life coach about a simple study conducted by a team of landscape architects in 2006 to observe the physical and psychological influences of having a fence around a playground, and how its consequent effects would impact preschool children. By observing teachers and their students on a playground surrounded by a fence, and on a comparable playground with no fence, the researchers found a striking difference in how the children interacted in the space.

On playgrounds without fences, the children tended to gather around the teacher, and were reluctant to stray far from her view. On playgrounds that were fenced in, however, they ran all around the entire playground, feeling more free to explore and play.

The researchers concluded that with a boundary, in this case a fence, children felt more at ease to explore and creatively engage in the space.


As an analogy to our own relationship between boundaries, creativity and freedom, I absolutely love this example for us as working adults.

On the one end of the spectrum, if we have no boundaries in our lives, then we are likely to feel unsafe, unhinged and paralysed by the seemingly endless world of possibility around us. Imagine playing a new type of sport where there is no objective, there are no rules, there is no time limit, there is no referee, and there are no edges to the sports field. If there are no boundaries, then rather than playing in the space, as humans we will likely seek safety and huddle around the proverbial teacher.

On the other end of the spectrum, if the fences/boundaries in our lives are too close and prescriptive, then we are going to feel oppressed, constrained and ultimately seek to tear down the fences around us. Imagine trying to play rugby on a 5m x 5m field? Those fences are not going to last long.

Every one of us has to dance this dance throughout our lives, and it's absolutely clear that your optimum tension between boundaries and freedom will change at different stages of your life. To make matters more complex, some of these boundaries will be set by you, but many will be set by your country, employer, marriage, religion and so on.

As adults, it's easy to feel victimised by the boundaries in our lives set by others, and it's easy to think that the solution to your frustration is to find freedom by breaking free from all of the boundaries in your life. Having gone there myself, I can assure you that's not the solution.

The more enlightened approach, at least in my opinion, is to consciously choose the boundaries you allow into your life, and to ensure that these boundaries are appropriate for your current life stage.

Where are you currently feeling overly constrained? If it’s in your intimate partnership, could you have a conversation with your partner about creating more space for you to go and get lost on the mountain every second week for 5 hours at a time? If it’s with your boss, could you have a conversation about introducing more flexibility into your work schedule with immediate effect?

Where are you currently feeling unmoored? If at work you feel like you don’t know what your boss expects of you, could you have a conversation about more tightly defining your priorities for this quarter? Could you have a conversation with a friend about setting up a monthly dinner to make sure that you connect on a regular basis? Could you schedule three exercise sessions a week to start getting back in shape?

We always have more agency than we give ourselves credit for. As it relates to the balance in your own life between boundaries and freedom, what could you do this week that could better optimise the balance for where you are at right now in your life?


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