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Creativity, Luck & The Unknown Unknown-Nancy Hillis MD and Bruce Sawhill PhD

Creativity, Luck & The Unknown Unknown-Nancy Hillis MD and Bruce Sawhill PhD

Creativity, Luck & The Unknown Unknown

The following blog post is constructed from conversations between myself and my partner, Dr. Bruce Sawhill, Stanford educated theoretical physicist and mathematician.

A week and a half ago, Bruce was swimming with two friends in the ocean here in Northern California, putting in thousands of yards (meters) through the chilly gray-green water. They usually swim in the pool, but since all of the pools are closed on account of COVID-19, they have been sent (exiled) to the ocean.

Fortunately, the ocean is an easy one-mile (1.6 km) bike ride away.

The nearest access point features a great arc of sand divided by a long pier full of touristy fish restaurants. 

One side is a cozy cove beloved by swimmers and beginner surfers and overlooked by a large and blocky hotel from the 1960s. The other side is long and straight and fronts an historic boardwalk and amusement park.

On this particular day, the three intrepid swimmers decided to walk under the pier pilings and swim the long straight part of the beach, a bracing effort in 57F/14C water without wetsuits.

After a down-and-back, they felt they hadn’t covered enough distance, so Bruce and one of them decided to swim around the Wharf.

Creativity, Luck & The Unknown Unknown- Nancy Hillis MD and Bruce Sawhill PhD

Santa Cruz Wharf


This wharf is one of the longest on the US West coast, protruding 800 yards (meters) out into the Pacific.

At the end of it, you feel you are “at sea.”

Nancy Hillis

Bruce’s Story: Black Swans, White Sharks & The Nature Of Happenstance

As we got near the end of the pier, something shot under us. We looked at each other and said, “What was that?”

I was getting hungry so my subconscious decided it was a salmon, since King salmon are in season and delicious, broiled with a honey-mustard glaze and served over rice.

Another sleek form shot past, and it was clear that it was a seal, a curious whiskered dog face looking at the two strange goggled interlopers with bright swim caps.

Creativity, Luck & The Unknown Unknown- Nancy Hillis MD and Bruce Sawhill PhD

Sea Lion


As we rounded the end of the Wharf, we were mobbed by sea creatures, 20 or 30 seals and sea lions.

Creativity, Luck & The Unknown Unknown- Nancy Hillis MD and Bruce Sawhill PhD

Santa Cruz Wharf Sea Lions


What was fun and interesting became threatening just on account of sheer numbers and commotion.

They were swimming around us, breaching, hurtling under us so closely that we felt the pulse of water as they sped by. They weren’t aggressive, but they certainly weren’t “social distancing”, either.

We thought of the old adage,

If you see a shark, you don’t have to out swim it, you only have to out swim the other swimmers.  

Several tons of marine mammals must look like a smorgasbord to sharks, and if one were to approach, they’d be gone in a flash, leaving…us. 

Creativity, Luck & The Unknown Unknown- Nancy Hillis MD and Bruce Sawhill PhD

Great White Shark


Our calm athletic equilibrium deteriorated into hyperventilation and looking frantically in all directions at once while crashing into each other and lurching off in random directions. 

We sprinted for a couple of boats at anchor about 200 yards (meters) away with the theme music of “Jaws” playing in our heads, and our flippered flash mob lost interest.

On the plus side, we realized we weren’t cold anymore.

Four hours later, after a hot tub and eating everything in sight to replace the prodigious caloric loss, a bit of news came across my phone.

A surfer had been killed by a shark in our County.

It was about 15 km south of where we were swimming, but that is an easy watery commute for a shark.

After looking up historical records, I discovered to my surprise that this was the first fatality in recorded history in Santa Cruz County, though there have been plenty of kayak nudges, surfboard bites, fin sightings, and other heart-attack inducing behaviors over the years.

Given how popular our bit of coastline is for surfing and playing, I was surprised that this was the first fatality in 150 years.

I didn’t sleep well that night. Might I have had a close call?

The Nature Of Luck

Being of a mathematical turn of mind, I started thinking about the nature of luck, especially the bad kind.

Statisticians will gleefully tell you that you have a much higher probability of dying in a traffic accident on the way to the beach than dying from a shark bite.

In fact, even such rational behaviors as urinating on high voltage power lines or standing on top of moving subway cars (“subway surfing”) have a higher death rate than shark attacks.

But when you’re stroking through murky cold water and can’t see the bottom and shore is a quarter-hour of hard work away, this is not comforting.

Trying not to think about sharks is like trying not to think about elephants after someone says, “Don’t think about elephants.”

Then there’s also what probability theorists call “selection bias”. 

All probabilities are composed of a numerator that counts a particular kind of event (people who have experienced shark bites) divided by a denominator that is a larger class of events (total number of people over some geography, for instance).

If the denominator is too generic and includes lots of people like farmers in Kansas who do not frequent shark-infested waters, this is not helpful to people who do.

If the denominator is “all slightly crazy people who swim miles in the ocean without wetsuits”, the numbers don’t look as good.

Chambers of commerce don’t like those statistics and tend to suppress them, which is selection bias in action.

Nancy Hillis

Your Brain Is Wired To Calculate Risk

Whether you’re a mathematician or not, your brain is always evaluating risk. 

“Should I cross this street against the light? I don’t see any traffic” goes through a complex evaluation with conscious and unconscious components.

The conscious part thinks back to similar situations.

The reptilian and unconscious part of one’s brain contains particular neurons that are able to make fast decisions, and to be able to do that, they have to be able to work with incomplete data and do it quickly.

Stopping and thinking only works when you can stop.

Conscious selection bias for the purpose of manipulation of others is dangerous and reprehensible, but not as dangerous as unconscious selection bias, where we don’t even know we’re fooling ourselves or others.

Again, it’s the difference between the unknown and the unknown unknown.

We may be choosing what realities our world is made out of and not even be aware that we are doing so.

In real life, isn’t data always incomplete?

Complete data is the province of controlled scientific experiments, and life is open-ended and not controlled.

Perhaps you’ve seen the humorous sign,

This life is a test. It is only a test. If it had been a real life, you would have been given further instructions as to where to go and what to do.


A good example of how this bias manifests is due to Nassim Taleb, a probability theorist and financier who coined the term “black swan.” 

Creativity, Luck & The Unknown Unknown- Nancy Hillis MD and Bruce Sawhill PhD

Black Swan

Black Swans & The Nature Of Happenstance

The idea is that no number of white swan observations can prepare you for a black swan, particularly if you don’t even know they exist.

Black swans are not even a category until you see one!

So if you live in a world of incomplete data and unknown unknowns, how do you survive and thrive?

Is there a way of biasing luck so that you have more of it? Can luck be engineered?

Engineering Luckiness

About 20 years ago, Dr. Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire in the UK decided to investigate the differences between people who considered themselves lucky and those who didn’t.

They found several hundred people, half of whom considered themselves lucky and the other half unlucky.

They did a controlled experiment of having them all buy cheap lottery tickets, looking for bias. Not surprisingly, winning lottery tickets did not correlate with perceived luckiness.

Further investigation in this decade-long study discovered two key features of luckiness that were ultimately published in his book The Luck Factor.

The first was that the “lucky” people had a lot of acquaintances in addition to close friends.

The Power Of Weak Ties

This corroborated groundbreaking research of the 1970s where a social scientist named Mark Granovetter discovered that weak ties, such as acquaintances, are more than just peripheral, they provide the glue that connects constellations of separate and tightly connected groups.

Creativity, Luck & The Unknown Unknown- Nancy Hillis MD and Bruce Sawhill PhD

Social Network Map Showing Strong & Weak Ties


If you want to explore beyond your backyard, acquaintances are your guide.

This is not to devalue close friends, but it is important to note that close friends are less likely to deliver surprise because you know them so well already.

Cultivating Surprise

The second idea is that of a kind of “structured surprise.” Lucky people did not over schedule their lives, but left gaps that could be seredipitously filled. 

They would engage in such behaviors as taking a different path to a store or to work, just because.

This was about leaving space for the unknown unknown.

How can these lessons be applied to the world of creativity?

The first lucky lesson, that of acquaintances, translates into having a passing familiarity with other creatives in your field, whether they be opera composers, painters, photographers, or screenwriters.

Not knowing them so well as to consciously emulate them, but well enough to take in what they have to offer and to walk through the doors they have opened ahead of you.

This is the realm of lineage.

The second lucky lesson translates into being open minded, being observant and doing experiments.

This is about making space for something new to fall in- and you don’t know ahead of time what it will be. This is indicated in the German phrase: las was einfallen. Literally, let something fall in.

The structured surprise is another word for the adjacent possible.

It is not so remote a reality as to be completely unrecognizable, but its adjacency means that it has one foot in your current reality and thereby allows you to take in something new and relate it to the familiar.

Lessons From Feynman

Creativity, Luck & The Unknown Unknown- Nancy Hillis MD and Bruce Sawhill PhD

Richard Feynman, Cal Tech, 1988


Years ago, Bruce was at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center attending a seminar given by the eminent physicist, Dr. Richard Feynman.

He talked about the strange behaviors and interpretations of probability in quantum physics.

Bruce remembers Feynman saying:

If you have an infinite number of things, each of which is infinitely unlikely, something will happen.

Richard Feynman


The language of probability is a structure that we impose on the continuous flow of events in existence, in life.

Probability is a ratio as discussed above in the discussion about shark attacks.

When we step into the Unknown Unknown, the concept of probability becomes less potent because the numerator and denominator are nebulous.

Luck involves our attitude about the unknown.

People who consider themselves lucky structure their life in a way that allows for surprise. They make space for the Unknown Unknown.

This is what you need to do in your creative life as well.

The Unknown Unknown is calling you.

Will you make space for the mystery?


With gratitude from my studio to yours,



P.S. Leave us a comment and let us know your thoughts

Nancy Hillis' new book: The Artist's Journey Creativity Reflection Journal

Nancy Hillis’ new book: The Artist’s Journey Creativity Reflection Journal


The Artist's Journey by Nancy Hillis, MD

The Artist’s Journey: Bold Strokes To Spark Creativity by Nancy Hillis, MD is available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Bookshop Santa Cruz and Book Depository.



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