The Weird Strategy Dr. Seuss Used to Create His Greatest Work (And Why You Should Use It Too)

Image: What is the size of your canvas?
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In 1960, two men made a bet.

There was only $50 on the line, but millions of people would feel the impact of this little wager.

The first man, Bennett Cerf, was the founder of the publishing firm, Random House. The second man was named Theo Geisel, but you probably know him as Dr. Seuss. Cerf proposed the bet and challenged that Dr. Seuss would not be able to write an entertaining children’s book using only 50 different words.

Dr. Seuss took the bet and won. The result was a little book called Green Eggs and Ham. Since publication, Green Eggs and Ham has sold more than 200 million copies, making it the most popular of Seuss’s works and one of the best-selling children’s books in history.

At first glance, you might think this was a lucky fluke. A talented author plays a fun game with 50 words and ends up producing a hit. But there is actually more to this story and the lessons in it can help us become more creative and stick to better habits over the long-run.

Here’s what we can learn from Dr. Seuss…

The power of constraints

What Dr. Seuss discovered through this little bet was the power of setting constraints.

Setting limits for yourself — whether that involves the time you have to work out, the money you have to start a business, or the number of words you can use in a book — often delivers better results than “keeping your options open.”

In fact, Dr. Seuss found that setting some limits to work within was so useful that he employed this strategy for other books as well. For example, The Cat in the Hat was written using only a first-grade vocabulary list.

In my experience, I’ve seen that constraints can also provide benefits in health, business, and life in general. I’ve noticed two reasons why this occurs.

1. Constraints inspire your creativity

If you’re five foot five inches tall and you’re playing basketball, you figure out more creative ways to score than the six foot five inch guy.

If you have a one-year-old child that takes up almost every minute of your day, you figure out more creative ways to get some exercise.

If you’re a photographer and you show up to a shoot with just one lens, then you figure out more creative ways to capture the beauty of your subject than you would with all of your gear available.

Limitations drive you to figure out solutions. Your constraints inspire your creativity.

2. Constraints force you to get something done

Time constraints have forced me to produce some of my best work. This is especially true with my writing. Every Monday and Thursday, I write a new article — even if it’s inconvenient.

This constraint has led me to produce some of my most popular work in unlikely places. When I was sitting in the passenger seat on a road trip through West Virginia, I wrote an article. When I was visiting family for the 4th of July, I wrote an article. When I spent all day flying in and out of airports, I wrote an article.

Without my schedule (the constraint), I would have pushed those articles to a different day. Or never got around to them at all. Constraints force you to get something done and don’t allow you to procrastinate. This is why I believe that professionals set a schedule for their production while amateurs wait until they feel motivated.

What constraints are you setting for yourself? What type of schedule do you have for your goals?

Related note: Sticking to your schedule doesn’t have to be grand or impressive. Just commit to a process you can sustain. And if you have to, reduce the scope.

Constraints are not the enemy

So often we spend time complaining about the things that are withheld from us.

  • “I don’t have enough time to work out.”

  • “I don’t have enough money to start a business.”

  • “I can’t eat this food on my diet.”

But constraints are not the enemy. Every artist has a limited set of tools to work with. Every athlete has a limited set of skills to train with. Every entrepreneur has a limited amount of resources to build with. Once you know your constraints, you can start figuring out how to work with them. (Click to tweet this idea.)

The size of your canvas

Dr. Seuss was given 50 words. That was the size of his canvas. His job was to see what kind of picture he could paint with those words.

You and I are given similar constraints in our lives.

You only have 30 minutes to fit a workout into your day? So be it. That’s the size of your canvas. Your job is to see if you can make those 30 minutes a work of art.

You can only spare 15 minutes each day to write? That’s the size of your canvas. Your job is to make each paragraph a work of art.

You only have $100 to start your business? Great. That’s the size of your canvas. Your job is to make each sales call a work of art.

You can only eat whole foods on your diet? That’s the size of your canvas. Your job is to take those ingredients and make each meal a work of art.

There are a lot of authors who would complain about writing a book with only 50 words. But there was one author who decided to take the tools he had available and make a work of art instead.

We all have constraints in our lives. The limitations just determine the size of the canvas you have to work with. What you paint on it is up to you.

Have you tried adding constraints to your writing process?

This article was originally published on JamesClear.com.

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James Clear writes at JamesClear.com, where he uses behavior science to share ideas for mastering your habits, improving your health, and increasing your creativity. To get useful ideas on improving your mental and physical performance, .

JamesClear.com | @james_clear

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Comments

  1. Hi James
    Couldn’t agree more with this post. A few years ago I had all the time and freedom in the world between my uni years, odd jobs and unemployment and an easy low stress job as a postman. I wrote a couple of dozen short stories and goofed around the rest of the time.

    6 years ago I settled into married life with 4 kids, working full time hours and started a side business. I and am far more productive now than I ever was despite having far less free time.

    I find that often when I have the least amount of time left – when I get home from a shift at 3pm, work on my business until 6pm I have to cook dinner, work on projects and run the kids to clubs and college. My wife doesn’t finish until 9pm – but by that point rather than feeling exhausted I often feel motivated by a sense of accomplishment in achieving so much in so little time.

    By 9pm I have a chance of working, without distraction, for an hour or 2 on my goals. This hour long window is all the more precious and creative because it it so hard to come by these days.

    Of course constraints must be combined with a strong desire and mindset to be fully utilized, otherwise we end up using them as excuses and rationalizations for not embracing our challenges. If we are brutally honest and objective with ourselves though, we can see that 90% of our “reasons/constraints” are just excuses not to battle onwards. There is always someone with tougher circumstances than us who is achieving a lot more – because of their desire and despite their constraints.

    • Thanks for sharing your story, Jamie! It’s funny how much the work expands to fit the free time you have. When there’s less time to get it done, I often find I’m able to manage just fine!

  2. A constraint I have and love in my writing life is that every night I transcribe an entry from the diaries I kept in college on my blog, A 1961-65 Park College Diary. Usually I start the process at 8:00 PM and am finished by 8:30 PM. I then go to Twitter where I retweet two notices about forthcoming writing events, post a #writetip tweet, and tweet a link to that night’s diary entry.

    A writing constraint I had from 1957 to 1965 in high school and college had to do with my inclination to procrastination. Term papers were written using library books as references. With a deadline near, I rolled sheets of paper into my typewriter and typed a sometimes lengthy quote, or several smaller quotes, indented, onto the paper in a random place. Later I organized the pages into meaningful order and added my connecting commentary. We also typed footnotes at the bottom of pages with numerals corresponding to a numeral after each quote.

  3. This bet sounds very similar to a Seuss story I wrote on my blog http://wp.me/p2mHol-25. I got my information from the Writer’s Almanac which said,
    “William Spaulding, a publisher from Houghton Mifflin’s educational division, thought that maybe a guy named Dr. Seuss, who’d published a few not-well-known but very imaginative children’s books, might be able to write a book that would be really good for teaching kids how to read. He invited Dr. Seuss to dinner and said, ‘Write me a story that first-graders can’t put down!’

    Dr. Seuss spent nine months composing The Cat in the Hat. It uses just 220 different words and is 1,702 words long.”

    The two stories are just so similar in nature, there’s no chance that they are two different versions of the same story? Or did he really accept a challenge that turned in to The Cat in the Hat, then win a bet with Green Eggs and Ham?

  4. This is such a timely post as I sit here reading blog posts, enjoying the last of a bag of cheese puffs, realizing that I am once again creating a diversion from my daily writing. I guess constraints don’t have to be viewed as such a bad thing to a free spirit. Thanks for the reminder!

  5. Inspiring … thanks.

  6. Thanks for the great article. I’ve been reading a lot of Dr Seuss to my daughter lately and was just thinking about the effectiveness of his deliberately simple way of writing. It also made me realise why I love entering design competitions. I find I am making some of my best work when I am following a design brief that limits my use of colour or gives me a theme to work within that I would never have chosen myself. I also push myself to learn new techniques that I wouldn’t have otherwise.

  7. Why did you named it weird techniques? It’s great..

Trackbacks

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  2. […] introduced me to another blog that explored the genius of Dr. Seuss. The post, “The Weird Strategy Dr. Seuss Used to Create His Greatest Work (And Why You Should Use It Too)” reveals that Theo Geisel wrote “Green Eggs and Ham” after a publisher issued him […]

  3. […] The Weird Strategy Dr. Seuss Used to Create His Greatest Work (And Why You Should Use It Too) – The Write Life (Feeling like you need some creative inspiration? This post will really help with that.) […]

  4. […] is awesome: The Weird Strategy Dr.Seuss Used to Create His Work (And Why You Should Use It Too) by James Clear on The Write Life. Thanks to KidLit 411 for bringing this one to my […]

  5. […] this interesting article the other day that reinforces this idea of working within constraints, “The Weird Strategy Dr. Seuss used to create his greatest work (and why you should use it too)” by James Clear.  Evidently Bennett Cerf, founder of the publishing firm Random House made a bet […]

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