Elijah Verdoorn

Programmer, Designer, Musician

Creativity through Restriction

Could you build a bridge across 2 tables up to feet apart capable of holding up dozens of coins with nothing but newspaper, mailing labels, popsicle sticks, and index cards? In less than 3 minutes? I know dozens of kids who were asked to do exactly that in instant challenge competition for Destination Imagination (DI), an educational program that I grew up participating in and now have the privilege of volunteering with. I am honored by the opportunity to give back to a program that made such a strong impact on me, chiefly the impression left on me was in developing the creative problem skills that I use in nearly all areas of my life to this day.

“If you don’t use it, you lose it.” This sadly true adage is one that I’m sure has bit everyone at some point; we have all muttered under our breath “this used to be easier…”. Luckily there is a simple way to address this: we just have to keep using our skills after we develop them. I’ve needed to do this with the skills that I developed in DI: it’s easy to go through a day as an adult without really needing to stretch the creative muscle, especially for someone like myself who is routine-oriented.

You can practice creativity in your everyday life just by adding restrictions to activities that you are already doing. Some ideas:

  1. Skip the gym, find ways to train at home. Search for something that is heavy, lift that in a variety of ways, emulate the movements that you would do in a gym with weights. You might even have already done this at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic!

  2. Cook with limited ingredients. A great way to save some money and clean out the pantry all at once is to challenge yourself to eat for some period of time with just what you already have.

  3. If you’d rather not limit ingredients in the kitchen you can always limit the techniques that you use. Unplug your oven, stove, microwave: what can you make with just a panini press? A waffle maker? Can you do a full meal? How about a full day of cooking?

  1. Have a vacation day/weekend around your home town/city without spending any money - you’d be surprised what you can find to do for free!

  2. Do art, but don’t buy art supplies; you can use things that you would throw out to make something new. Can you make something to decorate your living space with? In the past year I’ve adorned my apartment with art made from discs from old computer games that I played growing up.

  3. Find new uses for everyday household objects.

My inspirations for this come from many of the major influences that I had growing up. My mom is a master of using grocery bags for any and everything. She avoids doing unnecessary dishes by using plastic bags as bowl liners when cooking. I was shocked to discover her ability to create pasta salad and only dirty a spoon! She’s always used brown paper bags to serve popcorn: this keeps the oil/butter on the popcorn from making it soggy and again saves a dish. These two are just a few of the more commonplace uses she’s made for what some consider trash, through the years I’ve gotten to witness similar ingenuity on many occasions.

A distinct memory that I have of learning these skills alongside her and my Dad were two different school projects that I completed, one in elementary school and one in middle school. The first was to create a three dimensional model (mine ended up more like a stuffed animal) of a sea creature, specifically a giant squid. Working together with mostly household objects we were able to create a six foot long model that was the envy of the classroom; the second occasion that stands out was a 11th-hour effort to create a model of an element’s (Neon, if memory serves) atomic structure, showing the electrons, protons, and neutrons in position relative to one another. My childhood lack of forethought left me without any supplies to complete the project just hours before I’d have to take it to school to turn in, but our shared creativity and a healthy stock of hair-care products and beads set me up for the following morning, when I went to school to get full marks and a “glowing” (neon joke intended) review.

Sometimes having the right tool for the job is critical. Making that Neon model would have been a lot easier if I’d planned ahead and gotten supplies and tools organized before I needed them. If you’re working on something important or something that needs precision you’re always best to invest in quality tools and materials. Both of my grandfathers had amazing tool collections that they used to create amazing products of wood, leather, and more. If you’re interested in the process more than the product, however, anytime you’re making something you can put in some “creativity reps” by making a conscious effort to use the tools that you have rather than buying new tools. Think back to times before people had access to the latest from Milwaukee or Dewalt: the wonders of the world were built with hand tools, and cultures still build entire communities with nothing electric. Humans have always used what they have at hand in new ways to accomplish amazing feats, leaving a legacy of creativity for us to follow on today.

Being able to pass on these creative skills to others is a great honor, working with students through DI has been a true joy. I’ve had the opportunity to watch as this program takes teams of kids who might not have ever met before and sets them to a year-long task that they have to complete with no “interference” from their parents, coaches, or others. They are given a specific set of rules that must be followed, a budget, and are encouraged to think out-of-the-box in order to solve the problem at hand. These rules and restrictions are some of the most important parts of DI, not only because they provide structure so that all teams are on the same level playing field but also because they often block off the “obvious” path solution, requiring students to come together to pave their own roads to the end goal. The restrictions placed on the students were the inspiration for my method of practicing creativity in my daily life.

After a year of working on these challenges the student teams develop amazingly engineered systems that are then presented theatrically to a public audience. The 2022 - 2023 season is just getting started and already I’m stoked to see what the end results of these student’s hard work will be when they compete in the spring. As these kids develop their creative skills I’m excited to maintain or even grow mine as I go about my day to day activities so that I stand a chance at keeping up with them as the season goes on.