Erik Reagan

Ditching Assumed Constraints

When I was around fifteen I started learning to play the guitar. I was quickly addicted to the six-stringed muse. Making music was already part of my life, and family, so the quickly developed addiction to playing was no surprise.

Ditched Constraints Hero

I remember an early conversation I had with a buddy of mine who was also learning around the same time. We were talking about a specific song we heard on the radio and wanted to learn to play. For the life of us we couldn’t figure out how to get the guitar to sound like the one in the song. Then his brother came up and told us something mind-blowing.

“It’s an alternate tuning. The guitar is tuned way differently to get that sound.”

In our guitar-playing infancy this made no sense. We read the “Guitar 101” books. Guitars are tuned E-A-D-G-B-E. There is no “alternate tuning” to consider.

Or is there?

That one concept blew open the doors of creativity for me as I played and wrote random stuff. I loved experimenting with non-standard tunings! It’s been years since that revelation but I still remember it clearly. It challenged what I thought of as a foundational rule to playing guitar: the way you tune it.

Last year I read a book called Self Leadership and the One Minute Manager by Ken Blanchard. One of the concepts shared in this book is exactly what I experienced when I heard about alternate guitar tunings. I thought there was a limitation to how I could tune my guitar. But that was, in fact, an assumed constraint.

“An assumed constraint is a belief you have, based on past experience, that limits your current and future experiences.”

- Ken Blanchard

The example Blanchard gives in the book is that of a circus elephant. Questionable treatment of animals aside, the illustration is quite powerful. Check this out:

“When they begin to train an elephant for the circus, they chain the baby elephant’s leg to a pole in the ground. The baby elephant wants to get away. He pulls and tugs, but he can’t escape—the chain is too big and the pole is too deep in the ground. So he stops trying. As he grows up, he just assumes he can’t get away. Today he’s a six-ton elephant. He could sneeze and pull out the chain—but he doesn’t even try. Circus trainers say they can put a piece of string around that six-ton elephant’s leg and he won’t break away.”

How crazy is that? Now, it’s obvious to us that a six-ton elephant could easily break a string, or a chain for that matter. But the elephant has decided that based on experience, he can’t get away when something is tied to his leg.

Is there anything in your career, relationships, or life that you might consider an assumed constraint? Maybe it’s a design or business process that you believe can’t be any different. Or maybe it’s a specific aspect of client relationships that just can’t differ from how it was in the past.

I want to challenge you to put things under an "assumed constraints x-ray" this week. Consider where you might need to break free from your past experiences and push into new territory. Find or create new tunings for your guitar.

Ditch those assumed constraints.

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