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A Walking Retrospective & The Adjacent Possible- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

A Walking Retrospective & The Adjacent Possible- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

A Walking Retrospective On The Adjacent Possible


Further reflections on backpacking the Adjacent Possible

Our tale of last week’s backpacking trip has grown in the telling. It didn’t occur to us that hardly anybody our age thinks of doing this trek. We did it because nobody got around to telling us it was impossible. This is something useful to keep in mind in many creative endeavors. And we’re mostly recovered by now.

We also discovered in retrospect that the 25-mile beach and bluff walk was rife with allegories about the Adjacent Possible.




There were literal and physical components that demonstrated adjacency. A beach hike has a lot of adjacencies.

There’s always the water, but in our case there were steep headlands as well, sometimes rising thousands of feet straight up from the beach, other times a bit inland. We also spent a significant fraction of the time walking along eroded bluffs with precipitous drop-offs down to the beach.


Morning on the wild coast


The Inner Adjacent Possible


The more interesting and less obvious adjacencies were those that occurred in our thoughts rather than under our feet.

When one is in an unfamiliar environment and/or situation, such as backpacking for the first time in seven years in a place where we had never been before, one’s mind is evaluating what-ifs, most of them negative. This is a survival technique for estimating risk.

As we stumbled and slipped on seaweed-covered boulders on one section of the hike, what-ifs were occurring to both of us:

1. What if I turn an ankle here? (easy to do)

2. What if my boots come apart? (they were showing signs of doing so, rubber peeling off, blowing dirty foamy bubbles between the sole and the upper at each step so that they looked like they were foaming at the mouth. We had no spare footwear)

3. What if we go so slowly that the tide catches us? (we were managing a mere 1 mile per hour, slower than expected, the tide started coming in aggressively)


The hardest section of the hike


Later, walking along a bluff overlooking a vast stretch of beach and ocean, we thought:

1. Stay away from the edge in places, it could give way and we could be injured or killed. (this happened to a friend in a different part of California, it was life-changing for him after a compound fracture and hours-long rescue)

2. If I fell off this eroded sandy cliff, could a helicopter come rescue us here? (the beach was narrow, the wind high, the land steep)

3. Was that a snake? (we did see one cross the path 18 inches in front of Nancy and we still disagree if it was a rattlesnake or not–Nancy says yes, she saw rattles and thought it was a juvenile rattlesnake but didn’t hear it rattle, so we’ve been Googling snakes since)


Bruce on section of bluff



At first blush it might seem we were hiking hypochondriacs, but these thoughts were not shouting from the first row, they were mostly whispering from the gallery of our minds. The stripped-down minimalism and self-reliance of backpacking brought alternative future paths into sharp focus

Mostly it was one foot in front of the other, taking in the vastness of the nature, the fields of lupines and poppies, the enchanting clickety-rumble-swish of rounded stones rolling in retreating waves, the glinting gurgle of streams etching fractal patterns in the sand as they renewed their courses every low tide, and the buffeting of the ever-present wind blowing unimpeded off of the ocean. 



Unconcerned California sea lions on beach


After several post-hike days of soft beds and fine meals, we continued to reflect on the trip. 


Reflecting on The Adjacent Possible

Reflecting on The Adjacent Possible


Reflections On The Adjacent Possible


Over the course of many blog posts, we have written on the importance of accessing the adjacent possible via conscious effort and creative exercises.

But our “worry-wart” hike got us thinking that there are certain situations where the mind is exploring the adjacent possible, continuously and intensively and all by itself. It is a survival mechanism, a way of dealing with potential dangers, a kind of simulation where your mind subconsciously or consciously races continuously through alternate scenarios to the one that you are currently experiencing. 

It’s not hard to imagine how this might have evolved. Survival is a powerful teacher. Most every capability we have as humans is related to survival.

We have talked about the way that fear is hard-wired into the human psyche, and that one has to consciously overcome it in situations that are not mortally threatening, just cognitively threatening. 

What if we could teach ourselves to explore the adjacent possible in creative environments in the same way that we explore it automatically when confronted with physical or existential challenges? To mute the creepy soundtrack of fear and just watch the video, as it were?

This is the task before us.


With gratitude from our studio to yours,

Nancy & Bruce



P.S. Our forthcoming book, The Adjacent Possible: Guidebook & Stories of Artistic Transformation is getting closer to being published. Meanwhile, we’re still running the cover contest and we’d love your help selecting the cover!

Here are the 3 contenders. Which do you prefer? What are your thoughts? Let us know in the comments below.

The Adjacent Possible Book Cover Contest




Meanwhile, we found out this week the first Adjacent Possible book in the series won an award! The Book Excellence Award in Art! Find out why. Nab your copy of the first book in The Adjacent Possible series- you can get the eBook for only 2.99 for a limited time. 

The Adjacent Possible won a Book Excellence Award in Art

The Adjacent Possible won a Book Excellence Award in Art


The Adjacent Possible by Nancy Hillis MD

The Adjacent Possible by Nancy Hillis MD

Here’s what readers are saying about The Adjacent Possible:
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⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ “”A wonderful opportunity for developing your art, by building your confidence, exploring, and experimenting. I cannot recommend it highly enough.” – Amazon review.”
⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ “As an artist deeply transformed by her insight and teachings, I highly recommend this and her other books. Nancy Hillis is a brilliant art mentor and author.”
A revolutionary method influenced by groundbreaking research in biology and physics to guide you to embrace the unfolding of your art- from bestselling author Nancy Hillis, MD.
Being an artist is about continually evolving your art. It’s about cultivating your fullest self-expression and getting to the elusive deepest work your heart yearns to create.
Learn the science of creativity, the adjacent possible.
Every brushstroke, every decision in your art, creates a set of possible paths that were not only invisible before, but didn’t exist before you made that creative move.
This is the adjacent possible.
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