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Dreams Never Die | Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

Dreams Never Die | Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

Dreams Never Die


It’s never too late.

This last Thursday was a red-letter day for Bruce and his last advisee, a doctoral student at the University of California, Santa Cruz. 

After about ten-and-a-half years, he finally had a PhD thesis worked up enough to present it to the world, which in this case was his committee of three faculty (Bruce is emeritus but was a faculty member when the process began) and a gaggle of others, on-line and in person.

The decadal span gives credence to a term that Bruce heard long ago about getting a PhD: “Gradual school.” Ten years is on the longer side, but by no means a record. 

But there are some unusual things about this particular student. Not starting as the usual early twenty-something fresh out of undergraduate school who has only ever known study, but rather finishing at over seventy. He had set out to get his doctorate in his twenties, but it got derailed by life. 


Never Give Up On Your Dreams


He never gave up.

He harbored and cultivated this secret desire like a little green shoot in a basket hidden in the load of a camel crossing the desert.

Life went on, kids were born and grew up and went to universities and even graduate school themselves, grandchildren appeared, a divorce, multiple involvements in companies that came and went.

But the dream persisted.

No doubt influenced by his parents who were academics themselves. His father was instrumental in the creation of a world-famous Computer Science department, his mother an influential educator who rewrote the mathematics curriculum for secondary school students.

The thesis itself was narrow and deep as these things are, delving into the mathematics of air traffic control, a field highly in need of innovation.

We won’t discuss the details here, but the research process generated lots of beautiful moving pictures of colorful aircraft trajectories dancing around each other, reacting to weather and wind and circumstance like spaghetti stirred in a pot.

Inspiration came from unusual places, such as the game of Sudoku, the patterns of bird flight, the space time worms in Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle”, and more.

Like most PhD theses, it may sit on a shelf and not be read by anyone, though it can and probably will be excerpted and published in journals where a few specialists might read it. As Bruce was told when he wrote his thesis, “You’re guaranteed of four or five people reading it, your committee and your mother.”

If your mother is no longer living, as in the case for Bruce’s student, that cuts down the readership by one-quarter. I’m sure she would have read this student’s thesis from from cover to cover.

The point of this story is that it is never too late to pursue your dreams, whatever they are. 


Can You Start Painting At Seventy?


Why not?  

If your dreams won’t go away, that is telling you something. If they’re there even after being pummeled by life, take a moment to sit with them. They’re tough and worthy of recognition, if nothing else.

To paraphrase the poet David Whyte, “Your soul doesn’t care if you get your paintings hung on a gallery wall, your soul just wants you to paint.”

Of course there will the pragmatic concerns—Can I make a living doing this? Can I get a job in my field? And those concerns are valid.

But a life lived completely out of pragmatic concerns makes a person into a machine, and those lives may be the ones most likely to be replaced by machines. 


A life lived completely out of pragmatic concerns makes a person into a machine, and those lives may be the ones most likely to be replaced by machines.


Not all dreams can be accomplished, but a lot can be learned even just by acknowledging them. You might surprise yourself.

As one of our favorite heroes, Colin Fletcher, wrote in The Complete Walker,


And never, of course, explore the guts of an idea that seems as if it might threaten one of your more cherished beliefs. In your wisdom you will probably live to be a ripe old age. But you may discover, just before you die, that you have been dead for a long, long time.

– Colin Fletcher


This is personally relevant because Bruce and Nancy and another long-time friend are contemplating backpacking four days in the Sierra wilderness, high and pure and free, at an age when concerns tend to lumbago, (whatever that is) retirement, and comfortable recliners.

So, dear reader, here’s a question for you:

What is the dream you simply must say yes to?


From our studio to yours,

Nancy & Bruce


P.S. Great news! Our newest book: The Adjacent Possible: Guidebook & Stories Of Artistic Transformation won an Internation Book Award! The Reader’s Favorite Gold Medal Award.

Get your copy of the award winning book The Adjacent Possible: Guidebook & Stories Of Artistic Transformation 

It’s chock full of gorgeous paintings from twenty-five artists, along with foundational concepts to take your art to the stratosphere of WOW!





Nancy Painting on Blank Canvas





P.S.S. Leave your thoughts and comments below. We can’t wait to hear what you have to say.


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