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

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.

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.

55 Comments

  1. Once again, excellent! This reminds me of the concept of “desirable disadvantages” from Gladwell’s David and Goliath; where a disadvantage such as dyslexia causes some to study harder and become more skilled or knowledgeable… thereby enabling further success than by their peers.

    • I never thought about constraints this way before. But I am impressed by how you turn it into a positive. I am a lazy person and must admit that at times I complain about the most trivial of things, but if you really want change, you become the change. I think it’s great how you share this knowledge and wisdom with us and take pleasure in knowing you’re helping people make that change. God bless you good sir!

      Happy holidays,

      Jordan

    • I agree, it reminds me of Gladwell’s book. I had no idea that Seuss was under such constraints for that book. I believe in placing constraints on yourself in order to force greatness and greater creativity out of yourself.

  2. Love this story James about Dr. Seuss. So true that there is freedom in constraint.

    Really enjoy your writing. It is fresh, thoughtful and well researched.

    Best Elise

    A question:

    How do you find these great anecdotes? Any tips on researching for writing an article?

  3. Wonderful and insightful piece! It’s completely true — when we’re on a time-crunch, our “FIGHT or FLIGHT” response kicks in and we are faced with a choice:

    1. Stop, turn around, and give up.

    OR

    2. TRY to find a way to push through and make things happen.

    If it’s up to me, I’ll take the latter! :)

  4. Love This! (And, of course, I love Dr. Seuss!)

    I’ve got deadlines coming up on my first publishing project, so I’m going to use this to inspire me. Thanks.

    In the meantime, I have realized that “making a decision” to post a blog weekly is a bit like setting a “constraint”… I don’t “re-work” that decision, I live up to it!

  5. Wonderful article; inspiring story about Dr. Seuss; ever-so-useful advice with regard to how constraints can help one achieve goals.

    However, please, for the love of god, in future posts, resist the urge to use the noun ‘workout’ when you should use the phrasal verb ‘work out’. That is:

    noun: I only have time for a 45 minute workout today.
    phrasal verb: I want to work out for 45 minutes today.

    Perhaps this plea is pedantic, but this is, in part, an article about writing, and my appreciation of it is diminished when our lovely language is used incorrectly.

    • Thanks for the help, Molly! I’m glad you enjoyed the article. I’ll make those grammar changes right now (and hopefully remember them in the future).

      • I love your articles, James, but even more, I admire your gracious acceptance of “corrections.” I always find that hard, but I have learned from you today. This is how we move forward. Thanks again and looking forward to your next email.

  6. Wow, wonderful information. It encouraged me to be creative. Thank you Mr. James Clear! Keep on doing what you are doing.

  7. Ask me how much I loved this post.

    It’s no boast to say I loved it the most.

    But how will these words now impact my days?

    By making the most of my canvas, just as James says.

    (A poor attempt to channel the good Dr. Seuss.)

  8. Cool post.

    Constraints inspire creativity.

    In my work with teams, I find people become complacent. Ambivalent about their environment. The situation. Yawner.

    What if you only had 16 weeks to crush an extraordinary goal? Impossible? Not so. I’ve seen lots of things done in that period of time.

    Constraints are our friend.

  9. A very insightful article. Thank you very much. For the first time I see constraints as a form of motivation, prompting me to work creatively with what I have.

  10. I love this, James.

    Some of my best photos and most fun shoots came from bringing only one fixed lens on a B+W camera, yet I haven’t expanded this practice to other areas of my life, yet. Thanks for the inspiration to start!

  11. I almost did not read the post based on the title and the first part, but I’m glad I finished the whole thing! Now I understand that I have to make some hard deadlines on my business and work with what I got,

  12. This illuminated something I’ve noticed over the years. I do the best work with firm deadlines and tight schedules. In college, the semester I managed to get perfect grades also happened to be the semester that I took 18 credits, worked a full-time job, and a part-time job. For a long time, my success stumped me. Now I see that the time constraints forced me to use time efficiently and be creative about how I was going to get everything done.

  13. Thanks for this, totally agree.
    The schedule’s a wonderful thing. You can’t lie to the schedule!
    As well, I’ve learned through experience and now firmly believe that sometimes the greatest freedom can come from working within your constraints. This teaches you patience, and how to hustle for the smallest spaces of space or time, which you can actually use as a lever to expand something right up.

  14. Wow, James! What a unique and creative perspective! It’s kind of like staring your problem in the face and then, clear out of the blue, tossing in a wink! I like it! Framing the challenge differently gives us an open door to a new pathway. Much food for thought. Thank you!

  15. Dude. You are getting really good at this:) Thank you for another very insightful article. I believe that a persons name gives a good description of their qualities. You are a perfect example of this. You have an incredible talent in which you display useful information from such a Clear perspective.

  16. I don’t know where you get these perspectives, but I am sure glad that you share them! Amazing insight and food for thought. :)

  17. Good one James. :) I am using my constraints at best, to lose some weight. You’ve been an inspiration on that journey. Keep up the great writing!

  18. Hi James, I am a new reader of what you write (within constraints). It’s really good to read very small tricks from our daily routine. After reading the book of habits, I have started one habit. I would like to share it with you, I have planned to do 8 push-ups every day I go to washroom in my office (washroom is quite big for this activity). Thanks by the way!

  19. I think this is one of the main reasons I struggle to get motivated. I put off even the simplest of tasks as I have no constraints on when to do them. It’s something that school teaches you very well about deadlines as you’ll get in trouble if you don’t finish something within them. However in the real world, when the deadlines are often self imposed, I sometimes struggle to stick to them.

    It’s difficult when I know in my head that the constraints are only put in place by myself. External constraints motivate me, internal restraints make me lethargic.

  20. if you expand this idea to your whole life, you and your environment are the constraints. a lot of people think they need something or need to be better at something before they can work on a goal.

    but the reason so many do not reach their goals is not because they lack something, it is because they don’t accept the bet.

    there’s so little to lose and so much to gain. accept the bet and use everything you have to win.

  21. This is a great reflection on the creative response to limitations. Just think about sonnet structure and those iambic pentameters — and didn’t poets make something amazing out of those constraints? Love De Seuss too.

  22. Nothing hasn’t already been said that I can add to the discussion. Just wanted to thank you for this post. I appreciate your thoughts and find them to be just what I need. Happy Tuesday, James!

  23. Thanks James, excellent work!

    I do quite a bit of writing for my blog as well, so I’m curious:

    - How long does each of your articles take to write?
    - How much of that time is spent editing?
    - Do you have any specific tricks that you use to edit?

    I tend to get impatient, so my work isn’t as good as it could be.

    Thanks!

    Taylor

  24. Fantastic piece here. One of my mentors has a little line about “if wishes were fishes” and he always used it in coaching football. “This is who were are and what we got is this.”

    I love this kind of thing because athletes especially are always hoping and complaining about the advantages everyone else has and…well, you have what you have. Great stuff. I have a concept for training called “Killer App” and it runs my decision process on buying equipment AND the big picture of training. Basically, what is the single best thing this tool can be used for…then use it!

    I love your work. Keep it up.

  25. I’m glad to have read this as I’m currently pushing myself to write on a regular basis. Thank you for sharing these tips. I will embrace constraints from now on.

  26. Dude,

    This is great stuff. Per usual. You have a knack for making it all so very concise and dare I say… Clear?

    Thank you for your consistent hard work and monstrous effort. Mad swells to you, brah.

    Cheers!

  27. Another killer post James. I had heard and used the power of constraints before myself, but I had never heard the Dr. Suess story. Such a marvelous example of this!

    Great post, and a great idea for making the most out of things when you are limited.

  28. This post really put things into perspective. I’ve always liked having constraints for the same reasons you mentioned, such as forcing yourself to become more creative, and have purposely put constraints on myself to do things. The one constraint that I haven’t utilized effectively or took on as a challenge is time. Most of the time I would procrastinate until the last minute and produce something mediocre. When you lay time constraints next to resource constraints you can clearly see that it can be used in the same way. Thanks for showing what makes a professional vs an amateur.

  29. Green Eggs and Ham is still the GREATEST SALES BOOK OF ALL TIME for several reasons:

    1. Someone who is passionate about a product is not afraid to share it with others.
    2. He encounters rejection, but is still unwavering in his commitment to share.
    3. The only thing he does wrong is that he does not ask for referrals.

    I love the power of constraints, James. Keep up the great work!

  30. Amazing. I just realized that I’ve been using this for sometime that I can’t imagine after reading this great stuff. It’s a very informative write up , James. Turning your limitations to creativity. Thanks.

  31. You’re right. My procrastination started when I skipped my schedule and everything fell. I don’t write as much anymore, I don’t feel motivated. But I do notice that when I set myself deadlines, I get things done.

    Unfortunately, even that, I managed to skip…. LOL! but thanks for this. This will be helpful. :)

  32. Simply incredible! This is a propelling factor to wake up and to do my ‘job’. I procrastinate a lot but I’m challenged to revive my writing prowess. Thanks, and God bless you.

  33. I think we operate under constraints even if we don’t know it.

    Ignorance must be a popular one. Do we know what we’re doing ? We’ll do it any way. Do we understand what is said ? We’ll think of an answer any way. Do we have enough time ? We’ll do what we can regardless.

    Excellent article.

  34. I love your words and want to thank you for the encouragement! Peace to you today! N

  35. Wow! Thank you for being a blessing to me. Every article of yours that I read puts me on the right track. Thanks James.

  36. Working within constraints forces a battle between your “why” and an endless supply of excuses.