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Constraint & Decision: The Double-Edged Sword- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

Constraint & Decision: The Double-Edged Sword- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

Decision Architecture


Nancy and I have held forth at length about the conundrum we call “What’s on the Menu?” This is what decision theorists (they exist) call “decision architectures.” 


When I was a faculty member at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a colleague of mine (who later fled to become a stockbroker in New Jersey, there’s no accounting for taste) took a summer job to pay the bills, as he was a divorced father of two, the college job didn’t pay that much, and Santa Fe is an expensive city.


It turned out he was very good at selling cars, being garrulous and affable. 


Having two demanding young boys taught him some lessons about the process of decision making. He learned to structure the choices (the decision architecture) so that frustration was minimized.


Gustatorial Lessons


How does that work? Instead of asking, “What would you like for dessert?”, he would instead say, “Would you like an ice cream cone or a cookie?”


The key difference was that he had ice cream and cookies in the kitchen, unlike asking an open question whose answer might be “Baked Alaska” or “cannoli” or “liquid nitrogen frozen artificially flavored and colored microdots.”


Being a quick study, he applied these gustatorial lessons to selling cars.


Instead of asking a prospective customer, “What is your favorite color?,” he would ask them, “Do you prefer blue or green or red?” because the dealership had those cars on the lot.


At the root, we’re all five years old like my colleague’s kids.


Hidden Constraint


He earned numerous bonuses, though not enough to prevent him from bailing on the professorial life and becoming a stockbroker. What felt like a smorgasbord of availability to little kids and prospective car purchasers was actually hidden constraint.


Speaking of job choices, I’ve heard it said that the three true and secret considerations for hiring somebody are, in this order:

  • Available
  • Affable
  • Able


That itself is a decision architecture that explains a lot about the world of work.


Swimming Towards Enlightenment


But anything that is truly interesting has a converse that is also interesting. 


A few days ago, Nancy and I were on the road up to the UC Santa Cruz campus, which has a gorgeous Olympic sized pool overlooking the vast blue and green sweep of the Monterey Bay coastline, extending 40 miles to the Monterey Peninsula with the Big Sur mountains rising above the marine layer beyond that. We try to swim three times a week and usually succeed.



Rainbow at UCSC

Rainbow at UCSC near the swimming pool



I found myself with a tiny kernel of dread as we drove up. I swim with a Masters team that is based out of the UC pool, and the workouts can be prodigious, often requiring an afternoon nap to recover from. 


For some reason my gut was forgetting that I’m an adult, I can get out at any time, I can slow down if my heart is getting too far into the red zone, I can even swim something else that’s not on the menu.


I can even turn around, go home, eat donuts and take a nap.


Conditioning: Physical & Psychological


But I was conditioned to be apprehensive with an entire childhood spent swimming hard and fast.


Back then one would get tongue-lashed if one sandbagged a workout, one’s coach and colleagues expected a certain high level consistency of performance.


One had a reputation to uphold!


And one certainly couldn’t get out and leave without a very good excuse, like a 104 degree fever (40 C) or maybe nuclear war (only if your city was targeted, otherwise you needed to finish the workout before proceeding to the fallout shelter in your Speedo).


The Flip Side Of Constraint


We have written multiple times about the power of useful constraint in creative endeavors, (Popular past posts on the topic: The Power Of Simplicity & Constraint In Art and Simplicity, Constraint & Occam’s Razor) but the flip side is dysfunctional constraint. Memories and conditioning from the distant past can fall into the latter category. 


Decision architectures and constraint collide dysfunctionally in the swimming workout example.


The coach writes a workout and hands it out to the lanes of swimmers. One’s subconscious intones, It’s written, therefore you’re supposed to follow it.


The decision architecture has been removed and replaced by an apparent assignment.


It takes a particularly conscious effort to think, Maybe I’ll do it, maybe not, maybe I’ll adjust it, maybe I won’t do all of it. There are multiple levels of long-past conditioning to overcome.


My brother, at one point a swim coach, would attempt to defuse the dread of an impending workout to his high school swimmers, “This isn’t a workout, it’s an Athletic Improvement Opportunity™.”


Limited success with a bunch of surly teenagers facing a cold chlorinated tank at 6 am, rain pelting down mercilessly outside.


The power of hidden constraints and decision architectures is illustrated in this quote by the influential economist John Maynard Keynes:


“Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”


Wielding the Double-Edged Sword


In a creative life, constraints and decision architectures are a double-edged sword. They are both absolutely necessary and overwhelmingly insidious. 


What you learned or heard in art school, or from parents, or even from long ago conversations or readings can have profound effects in your current life.


If you feel anxiety or fear that seems out of place, it probably has a long history.


Start digging. The only way past is through.



With gratitude from our studio to yours,

Nancy & Bruce



P.S. NOW is the perfect time to create.

This is the existential moment- this is the time where we see what our life is about. We notice what is meaningful and alive for us.

You might be thinking…I’m just too blocked, too down, too scared or frozen….or even just shy….

You may be feeling that you can’t create now….

But I say to you that you’re a creator…you’re an artist and artists create.

And there are many ways to create and be creative….

Pair your explorations in your art studio with our Art of the Possible Book Series!



QR Code- The Art Of The Possible Series

QR Code- The Art Of The Possible Series






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