Ditching Assumed Constraints

by Erik Reagan


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.

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.

A number of years go 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.

Photo of Erik Reagan

Written by Erik Reagan