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Creativity- Why The Path Matters- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

Creativity- Why The Path Matters. This post is informed by conversations with Dr. Bruce Sawhill, Stanford educated theoretical physicist and mathematician.

Creativity: Why The Path Matters


We’ve talked about microjoys and microgripes as one traverses the path of life.

These are like little stickings and slippings—the presence and absence of friction.

Now, let’s explore the path itself and the importance of it. It is more than just the most convenient way to get to a goal with the least irritation, not just conserving energy but using it to better ends.

In fact, some irritation may be of use, like the irritation of a sand grain in an oyster that produces a pearl.


Oyster and pearl


A very rapid series of stickings and slippings between a rosined bow and a cello string is what makes the difference between a kind of feeble raspiness and a rich musical tone.


Cello string and bow


Putting up with microgripes in the service of a greater goal is an asterisk next to the idea of reducing those microgripes.

One of the defining characteristics of complex systems is path dependence-  the specifics of the path taken matter, as Robert Frost opined:


Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

-Robert Frost



Diverging paths


Path Dependence


Path dependence comes with a whole accessory bag of concepts.  

If we revisit the idea of traversing a landscape as a metaphor for life, imagine that part of the landscape is a very cold (but flat, of course) lake and another part of the landscape is a sheer cliff, on the other side of the lake and between you and your goal.


Lake and cliff


With the idea of no wrong direction travel in mind so as not to waste effort, the most efficient path may involve crossing the lake and ascending the cliff, but this is not feasible for mere mortals without special training or equipment.

Constraint is connected with tradeoffs, and tradeoffs inspire creative thought.

Shakespeare may have been pushing it when he said, “All’s well that ends well.”

I beg to differ.

More than the end matters. 


Kurt Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians


The author Kurt Vonnegut in his novel Slaughterhouse Five creates an alien race called Tralfamadorians that see life in four-dimensions, where the life of a person through time is made visible in one view.


Tralfamadorian from Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut


People appear to Tralfamadorians as long snake-like objects with a new-born baby at one end and a casket at the other and a long circuitous path in between, a very clever way of highlighting the connection between dimensionality and path.

A music professor of Bruce’s once pithily captured the ramifications of four dimensions by saying,


Playing the right note benefits one very little unless you play it at the right time.


Physicists often deal with situations in which the path does not matter and every possible configuration of a system is visited eventually and randomly regardless of its starting point. All points and all paths are typical in a statistical sense. 

Why do they do this?

It makes the calculations easier in studying systems with many parts, like understanding the behavior of a gas of atoms, each indistinguishable from the others. 

And it has a great name: Ergodicity, from the Greek ergon “energy, work” and hodos “way, path.” 


Boltzmann’s Equation


The term was created by Ludwig Boltzmann, father of statistical mechanics, shown here interred under an equation of his own creation.



Ludwig Boltzmann Gravestone, Zentralfriedhof/Vienna


But though we humans are made of many particles, some of them indistinguishable from each other, we are not ergodic systems.

Yes, you guessed it.

Another hallmark of complexity is non-ergodicity. 


The world as it is depends on the world as it was, and if we started it over again, it would never look like it does now.


Ditto with your life. Death may be inevitable, and taxes a distant second, but not much else is. 


Creativity: Exploration & Decision


This is where creativity comes in. 

It is a balance of traversing a path with choosing that path, and developing judgment about managing that balance.

If efficiency is of paramount importance, you are quite constrained as to what you see on the journey.

If exploration is of highest importance, there is a great deal of random exploration, maybe even ergodic, but there is a diminished sense of goal and purpose.


Discovery is only part of creativity. Being able to incorporate the discoveries, making decisions and carrying them forward is the other major part.


Reflecting on your discoveries and documenting them in some way, brings visibility and confers value. This is why I’m a big fan of keeping a journal, whether written, electronic or, as Picasso did, having one’s paintings be one’s diary.


With gratitude from my studio to yours,


P.S. If you want to begin documenting your creative discoveries, The Artist’s Journey: Creativity Reflection Journal is a playfully illustrated self-help journal crafted to activate the inner sources of your creativity.


The Artist's Journey: Creativity Reflection Journal. A playfully illustrated self-help journal crafted to activate the inner sources of your creativity.

The Artist’s Journey: Creativity Reflection Journal. A playfully illustrated self-help journal crafted to activate the inner sources of your creativity.


You fear mistakes in your art. The failed prototype, the flubbed line, the unoriginal song- and yet they’re vital to your creativity. They lead to the adjacent possible– to new realizations, undiscoverable in any other way.


Lessons, creative prompts, poetic musings and stories unfold, exhorting you to reflect upon your life and to express your most meaningful and authentic art.



Get your copy HERE. 











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