On constraints fostering creativity

Here, Knuth gives an example from his own life where he was at his most creative during a time when he “shouldn’t have been”.

If I look back at my own life and try to pick out the parts that were most creative, I can’t help but notice that they occurred when I was forced to work under the toughest constraints. For examples, 1967 was surely the msot hectic year of my life, but that was the year when I was lucky enough to come up with several ideas that are now considered important, like “attribute grammars” and “Knuth-Bendix completion” and “LL(k) parsing.” I actually had not time to do research that year, because The Art of Computer Programming was nearing publication, and my wife and I had two babies to take care of, and I needed t be hospitalized briefly, and I gave lectures in five countries on five different subjects, in addition to the classes I was teaching at Caltech. yet I stole time to look at new things whenever I could; for example, at once conference I remember that I skipped most of the lectures so that I could sit on the beach and do research. I often wonder whether I would have been more productive or less productive if my life and been more stable that year.

My experiences suggest that the optimum way to run a research think tank would be to take people’s nice offices away from them and to make the live in garrets, and even to insist that they do non-researchy things. That’s a strange way to run a research center, but it might well be true that the imposition of such constraints would bring out maximum creativity.

-Donald Knuth, Things a Computer Programmer Rarely Talks About, p.82

I was just telling an artist friend of mine something similar. It seems that times of creativity do go hand-in-hand with times of highest productive output. Many of the best artists just work and work and work and come up with new good stuff along the way. When they stop and take time to “be creative”, they quickly stagnate. This is why sabbaticals, while perhaps providing physical rest, often backfire with regards to coming up with new ideas. The place to hit on new material is in the trenches, with bombs going off around you.

From a programming perspective, I know that I’ve also slipped a bit when things were quiet. In hindsight, being in college about 13 years ago was the easiest time of all. Now I have four children and very few hours or even minutes in the day unaccounted for. But back when I had entire weekends at my disposal, I came up with nothing. Now, I come up with all kinds of new ideas and solutions for problems in the scraps in-between everything else. I think we just have to take whatever we have and run with it.

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