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Novelty, Possibility & The Lost Ring- nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

Novelty, Possibility & The Lost Ring- nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD



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In this ongoing series of blog posts, we address the cultivation and pursuit of creativity.

There is a flip side to this pursuit, namely the danger of an endless obsession with novelty. Can too much novelty be bad for you?



dice rolling as a source of novelty



Not all novelty is created equally.

One of our central tenets is the idea of the “Adjacent Possible,” novelty that has a particular relation to one’s current knowledge and worldview.

It is about the different and new, but in such a way that it can still be incorporated into one’s current reality. It is not novelty for novelty’s sake alone, but rather carefully chosen to expand one’s domain, to build a bigger tent in which to keep your thoughts.

Recently, I decided to cook a meatloaf.

There’s a certain time of year where this urge strikes, generally when the nights are longer, the mornings are frosty, and one needs something hearty. It’s not a summer sentiment. 



Meat Loaf



It’s not fancy food. It is pure comfort.

Our particular version is herbal, fragrant, and savory- using Italian pasta sauce, plenty of onion, and fresh rosemary.

The rosemary is gotten by walking out the back door, across the grey sun bleached deck, brushing past the laden Meyer lemon tree that somehow is full of ripe and little green lemons simultaneously and a few blossoms for good measure, and picking off a few sprigs of rosemary from an ancient bush in the corner.



Lemon Tree



When I went out there to pick it, I remembered back to childhood, growing up with deep snowdrifts and frosted windowpanes and icicle eyebrows, dreaming of living in a place where one could casually pick lemons and other goodies, year around. And now we do!



Winter city and river


Hedonic Fade


I remember a friend in college telling me about “hedonic fade,” the idea that a significant upgrade or desirable novelty in life is rapidly normalized and becomes the status quo in a very short time.  This friend described a work colleague who thought life would be just peachy if his family had one more car, bringing their total to four, a very American disease. 

The family got that fourth car, and the joy didn’t last a week.

Is hedonic fade inescapable?



New car (Ferrari)




Nancy has told me about the psychological state of “anhedonia,” (Greek: an- “without” and hedone- “pleasure”) which is the inability or diminished capacity to experience pleasure. Clearly it is a cousin of hedonic fade.

Anhedonia belies a wounded psychological state, a beaten-down status, a fear of feeling much of anything. It seems as if too much hedonic fade might get you there.

As I collected the rosemary and a couple of lemons, I reflected on the opposite of hedonic fade. There should be a nifty Ancient-Greek-based word for that, but neither of us knew of one.

I realized that I was doing something that I thought fifty years ago would make me happy, and it still does, ever so much so, every single time. No fade whatsoever.


I think this is the feeling that one wants to feel in a creative pursuit- that it never gets old. If it does, perhaps it is time to stop and think, to try and see whatever you’re doing with new eyes. 


After I brought the produce back into the house, I set about making the meatloaf.

It is a tactile, messy process, kind of like painting. Your hands definitely get gloppy.

I went at it with enthusiasm, squishing the mix between my fingers to blend the ingredients together, periodically cleaning my hands in the process, chopping, tidying up, eventually forming a loaf in a pan and placing it in the oven.


Lost & Found


About 15 minutes later, with the loaf sizzling gently, I looked at my finger in horror and realized that my wedding ring was missing. 

In a panic I scrounged around in the disposal cavity under the sink, emptied the garbage and recycling and sifted through them, scrabbled around the floor on hands and knees, and came up empty.

No ring.

My mood soured.

Doubt crept in. Did the ring even make it into the kitchen? Was it in the car? At the bottom of the pool where we swim? Under the bed? Did I even have it on that day?

None of those options felt right.

I have enough awareness of the ring’s presence that I notice its absence pretty quickly, such as before I put it back on after a swim. 

It doesn’t come off so easily unless it’s got something to make it slippery, like water or soap. I wondered if it could have come off in the meatloaf as I was kneading it. It felt very plausible, albeit unprecedented.

I resisted a temptation to engage in a frantic search all over the house and forced myself to be patient long enough to cook the meatloaf and cut it up. The more Nancy asked me where I had last seen it, the less sure I became.

After dinner, we sliced the loaf in multiple thin transverse slices, kind of like a CT scan. 

No ring.

Sadness set in.

I decided to worry about it by the bright light of the next day. I was afraid to revisit the meatloaf. What if the ring didn’t show up? 

The next morning the sun streamed into the kitchen. I felt pessimistic and almost didn’t want to run the experiment. Nancy pushed me to not be an ostrich with my head in the sand. 

I pulled out the sliced meatloaf and sliced it perpendicularly, maybe 20 times. No telltale clank of knife against ring. 

But there, on the cutting board, a circular outline was apparent.

Like an archaeologist of the kitchen, I extracted the ring.

I chastised myself for not wanting to run the search experiment, for being afraid of bad news so much that it would prevent the reception of good news. A kind of anhedonia, even before breakfast.


I believe a creative life creates more potential opportunities for denial of joy, for anhedonia, for fear of the new, than other life choices. Overcoming these is at least as much about practice as it is about courage.


With gratitude from our studio to yours,

Nancy & Bruce


P.S. Our newest book: The Adjacent Possible: Guidebook & Stories Of Artistic Transformation is here!

Nab the eBook or Print book HERE










Nab the eBook or Print book HERE







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