In a box and with a fox: Dr. Seuss and the benefits of limits

Phil Castle

I fight as a newspaper journalist to write tight. I endeavor to reach a conclusion without using too many words to get there. I prefer lean, muscular prose to corpulent bloviation.

Compared to some writers, though, I’m a profligate who squanders words the way a drunken sailor spends money.

I’m talking about you, Theodor Geisel.

Better known as Dr. Seuss, Geisel wrote and illustrated some 60 children’s books that sold a total of more than 600 million copies. Despite those prodigious numbers, he was also in one respect a man of few words.

Challenged to write a compelling book using a short list of words deemed important for first-graders to recognize, Dr. Seuss produced “The Cat in the Hat.” He used only 236 different words.

He was just warming up.

Bennett Cerf, co-founder of the Random House publishing firm, bet Dr. Seuss $50 he couldn’t write an entertaining children’s book using just 50 distinct words. The result was “Green Eggs and Ham.” Cerf never paid up, but the book sold more than 200 million copies.

I’m envious of those numbers, small and big. I share one thing in common with Dr. Seuss, though: I recognize the benefits of limits.

And here’s the moral of my story not only for writers, but also business owners and managers. Everyone, really. While we perceive limits as bad things, they also can be good things. At a time when a pandemic and resulting restrictions have imposed substantial limits and business is anything but usual, the notion is an applicable one.

Before proceeding any further, let me give credit where it’s due. James Clear — entrepreneur, photographer and author — also addresses the benefits of limits. I would encourage those with an interest to read his book, “Atomic Habits: Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results.”

With that caveat out of the way, allow me to bring my perspective to the conversation.

Newspaper journalists work under a variety of limits, chief among them space and time. Websites afford more digital space, but there are only so many column inches available on actual newsprint for copy and photographs. Time — or, rather, the shortage of it — presents an even more pressing problem. The moment I send the last page to the printer, the countdown begins on the next press deadline.

Less really can be more, however. Limits on space and time force journalists to set priorities, to work on those stories they deem most pertinent and interesting to readers. The result isn’t so much all the news that’s fit to print, but the most important news that fits, prints. It’s a refining process — one beginning with a large quantity of raw material, but ending with a smaller amount of something pure and valuable.

Limits force business owners and managers to set priorities, motivate them to get things done and inspire them to operate in new and innovative ways.

The only silver lining to the dark cloud of a pandemic has been the ways businesses have responded. Restaurants limited in offering dining switched to carryout and delivery. Retailers followed suit with variations on the same theme. Other businesses have figured out how to continue operations with staffs working from home. Still other businesses have been even more inventive in introducing services and products to cope with the pandemic — disinfecting offices, stores and homes or supplying the plastic barriers that have become nearly ubiquitous.

If I’ve learned anything from working more than 20 years as editor of a business journal, it’s that entrepreneurs are a creative and resilient lot. Faced with a mountain of lemons, they’ve somehow managed to make a lake of lemonade.

James Clear compares limits to a canvas for a painting. Every writer, business owner and manager faces limits in the size of their canvases. The question is what they do to create works of art.

No one will ever match Dr. Seuss for his ability to turn a few words and poetic meter into such endearing tales. Least of all me. I could not write it in a box. I could not write it with a fox.

But I’ll continue my fight to write it tight. It’s my sincere hope business owners and managers — everyone, really — will continue the fight to survive the pandemic.