Phil Hansen is an artist.

While still in school, Hansen developed a tremor in his hand that hindered his ability to draw a straight line. In his efforts to compensate, he would hold his pen tighter, progressively worsening the shake. "This became a vicious cycle," said Hansen, "that ended up causing so much pain and joint issues, I had trouble holding anything." Not seeing any way to continue, Hansen left art school behind.

"This was the destruction of my dream of becoming an artist," he says.

But Hansen couldn't stay away from his passion. His decided to see a neurologist, who revealed that Hansen had suffered permanent nerve damage. After taking one look at a squiggly line the artist drew, the neurologist asked a question that would change Hansen's life forever:

"Why don't you just embrace the shake?"

He did.

"I went home, I grabbed a pencil, and I just started letting my hand shake and shake," says Hansen. "I was making all these scribble pictures. And even though it wasn't the kind of art that I was ultimately passionate about, it felt great. And more importantly, once I embraced the shake, I realized I could still make art."

"I just had to find a different approach to making the art that I wanted."

What Hansen was able to create over the following years, displayed throughout the TED talk below (or by clicking this link), is nothing short of amazing.

As you view the talk, you'll see examples of Hansen's artwork, including:

  • A beautiful portrayal of a child drawn on Starbucks cups
  • A stunning portrait of Bruce Lee that he painted using only "karate chops"
  • A magnificent replica of the Mona Lisa--using hamburger grease

But what can we learn from it all? Here are three lessons:

1. Turn your limitations around.

Instead of focusing on what he couldn't do, Hansen focused on all the things he could.

"I began experimenting with other ways to fragment images where the shake wouldn't affect the work," says Hansen, "like dipping my feet in paint and walking on a canvas, or, in a 3D structure consisting of two-by-fours, creating a 2D image by burning it with a blowtorch."

"I discovered that, if I worked on a larger scale and with bigger materials, my hand really wouldn't hurt, and after having gone from a single approach to art, I ended up having an approach to creativity that completely changed my artistic horizons."

2. Stop thinking outside the box. Instead, get back inside.

Hansen shares how after buying art supplies, he slipped into a creative slump. "I was actually paralyzed by all of the choices that I never had before."

How did he break free?

"I had to quit trying so hard to think outside of the box and get back into it." He started looking for limitations...such as creating with only a dollar's worth of supplies (resulting in the Starbucks mural) or painting with karate chops instead of a brush (ergo, the Bruce Lee portrait).

Look for inspiration in limitations. Because, as Hansen says:

"We need to first be limited in order to become limitless."

3. Fight the urge to give up.

"Looking at limitations as a source of creativity changed the course of my life," says Hansen. "Now, when I run into a barrier or I find myself creatively stumped, I sometimes still struggle, but I continue to show up for the process and try to remind myself of the possibilities."

Life is hard. Each and every one of us will reach moments when we're tempted to take the easy way out. But it's true what they say:

If it doesn't kill you, it makes you stronger.

So the next time you encounter a weakness or limitation, "embrace the shake."

Because the power of perspective can turn the most insurmountable obstacles into our very best work.  

Published on: Aug 10, 2016
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