Turning “If Only” into a Superpower: Constraints Breed Creativity | Stephen Carter | 4 Min Read

April 15, 2024

Often in a school setting, it can be easy to lean into an “if only”: “if only I had more time” or “if only the financial resources were there” or “if only we had a more supportive administrative team.” It’s a pretty classic response to frustration or failure for us to look to a reason outside of ourselves. Napoleon Hill, in his classic work Think and Grow Rich calls these “famous alibis” and he includes a list of 55 toward the end of the book. Some of them hit home in a serious way:

If only I had the personality of some people…

If only other people didn’t ‘have it in for me’…

If only I now had a chance…

If only my talents were known…

If only nothing happened to stop me…

Napoleon Hill

On and on the list goes, showcasing excuse after excuse for inaction or for whatever shortcoming the reader may be experiencing. Even the use of the word “alibi” is striking as it suggests we are seeking freedom from blame for whatever is being explained away. The beauty, however, is how quickly we can reverse this thinking; how quickly we can move from seeing “if only” as a crutch into seeing it as the superpower it is.

So how exactly is an “if only” a superpower? The answer is in the mindset of how we approach it. And at the end of the day, mindset is everything. I’ve written extensively about the entrepreneurial mindset and its attributes (including growth mindset, grit, redefining failure, and opportunity seeking) but equally if not more important than the attributes are the foundational principles on which the mindset is built. Principles, which my friend Alex Judd from Path for Growth defines as “concisely worded statements of truth that transcend circumstance,” are always at work and if we understand and recognize them, we can put them to work for us rather than against us. Consider the principle “consistency compounds”—what we do day after day after day defines who we become. This is as true for our finances (compound interest) as it is for our health and our relationships. Understanding the principle means the ability to apply it effectively.

The principle we can see in the “if only” paradigm is as follows: constraints breed creativity. Consider the paradox in that statement—constraints, normally sources of frustration that stop or slow important progress, should be celebrated as drivers of innovation. Where we find limitation or the potential for an excuse, we should approach it with excitement because it is an opportunity for creativity. Constraints are amazing simply because they force us to get out of our comfort zone and think differently, if we approach them with the right mindset.

My last ten years have been a journey of building an entrepreneurship program in a K-12 school that focuses on student impact. Through that journey, I’ve come to see that schools are perfect breeding grounds for constraints, especially when it involves the creation of something new or different. Many times, these constraints are financial. Trying to build a state-of-the-art teaching kitchen without any money is certainly a constraint. Asking for $30,000 for the physical build out of a student-run coffee bar and getting instead a $10,000 loan is the working definition of a constraint. And the financial constraints are just the starting point. Creating innovative programming that fits inside the pre-determined bell length of the school, competing with existing elective programming for student attention, and navigating the complexities of operating businesses with teenagers are all examples of constraints.

And yet they are all unbelievable opportunities. This is part of the reframing piece of the entrepreneurial mindset. When we move from seeing the constraint as a source of frustration to seeing it as an incredible opportunity, we are embracing the creativity that will be asked of us. And even more powerful is the effect this has on the students. No money? No problem—we will earn it through student-run business ventures. No space? Perfect—we can innovate to meet students where they are. No time? Excellent—we’ll have to be wildly productive in the little time we do have. The constraint is something to get excited about because it means we are about to get the opportunity to test our innovative skills.

At the end of the day, it is the skills that are developed through this line of thinking that are most important. As we work to equip our students with the necessary mindset to thrive in the uncertain future they are facing, there are two skills that prove to be vital: becoming a problem-solver and becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable. Both skills are inherent in the teaching of the entrepreneurial mindset, and both are developed as by-products through hands-on application as students navigate the constraints that life throws their way. And let’s face it—life has a way of consistently presenting these constraints. Imagine the resilience of the student who, when faced with the constraint, refuses to give in to the “if only” approach and instead smiles and gets to work with a creative solution—that feels like a superpower to me.

Want to build meaningful entrepreneurship programming at your school? Let’s connect ([email protected])

You may also be interested in reading more articles written by Stephen Carter for Intrepid Ed News.

Stephen Carter

Stephen Carter is the Director of Entrepreneurship and Sustainability at Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy where he has taught for 18 years. His most recent book, Teaching the Entrepreneurial Mindset, chronicles the ten-year journey of developing the entrepreneurship and sustainability program and his own experience in learning to think like an entrepreneur. He is the founder of Seed Tree Group (www.seedtreegroup.com) where he helps K-12 schools build impactful entrepreneurship programming. He can be reached at [email protected].

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