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The Adjacent Possible | Nancy Hillis

The Adjacent Possible | Nancy Hillis

The hero’s journey, the adjacent possible and the mathematical concept of zero to one show up in surprising ways in art, life & creativity

Dr. Bruce Sawhill, my partner, had an astonishing experience that combined the hero’s journey, the adjacent possible and the concept of zero to one while swimming recently in Santa Cruz.

This is not just any swimming. It’s more like full immersion baptism in the cold Pacific waters of northern California in November. 

Without a wetsuit.

He thinks this is fun.

Bruce is a physicist, mathematician and complexity scientist who finds swimming conducive to pondering the mysteries of the universe. It’s a form of prayer and sensory deprivation- alone with wind, wave and breath.

Perhaps the frigid water (54 degrees) brings his brain closer to absolute zero and the beginnings of superconductivity.

Maybe the prone swimming position allows increased blood perfusion to the area of his brain where his most treasured ideas are kept.

Bruce is aware of my fascination with the hero’s journey as a paradigm for many of life’s deepest challenges and mysteries.

He had a strange and remarkable encounter while swimming that he told me about after returning home and running all the hot water out of the shower.

Bruce’s Story

“I was cruising along in shallow water near the shore because there are no lifeguards on duty as this is great white shark season.

I know you’re fascinated by the idea of the hero’s journey, and it occurred to me that every open-water swim is a kind of hero’s journey in miniature. But this one was different. 

Here’s how my particular Hero’s Journey went:

The call: It’s a good day for a swim.

The refusal: It’s windy. It’s cold. The water’s murky. A shark was seen somewhere. I’ll go tomorrow.

Saying yes. Taking the plunge: No explanation necessary.

The dark night of the soul: I’m a half mile from the stairs and I’m getting cold and tired.

The reaching within and digging down deep: Pushing hard, getting slapped around by waves, taking great breaths, heart pumping fiercely to counter the unforgiving cold assault from outside.

The reward: Climbing out, feeling more alive than seems humanly possible. 

Finally, the Return: a hot shower.

As I was in the reaching within part of the journey, I was fascinated by the beautiful ripples on the sandy bottom as my shadow passed over them, my hands throwing whirling vortices of bubbles. 

Just then, something moving and white caught my attention out of the corner of my eye.

It was not a great white, it was more like a plant, anchored to the bottom, waving its tendrils in the currents. 

I changed course and stroked over to the mysterious organism. It seemed odd that a plant would flourish in a great expanse of sand. It took a moment to overcome the cognitive dissonance and recognize the object for what it was.

I couldn’t believe what my eyes revealed. 

It was a book.

I dove down and picked up the hardback. It hadn’t been there long. It didn’t dissolve in my fingers. I leafed through the sodden mass to find a title page.

It was Spartacus, by Ben Kane. The story of a hero’s journey if ever there was one.

I’m not necessarily a disciple of the idea that the Universe sends you what you need, but like the pioneering Danish quantum physicist Niels Bohr who kept a good luck horseshoe above his office door said, “You know, my friends tell me it works whether you believe in it or not.”

I’ve been swimming in these particular waters for many years and have seen very few books on the ocean floor.

In fact this was zero to one

Having nowhere to put the book (I was wearing a Speedo) and rapidly getting chilled, I released the tome to the waters and watched it flutter its pages of glorious story on its slow motion descent.

It seemed like a dream.

And then I returned- back to my life.

I swam back to the stairs, climbed out, and cycled home, elated by this auspicious message from Poseidon.

I couldn’t wait to tell Nancy.

Nancy’s Story

When Bruce told me this story, I was struck by the incredible variety and randomness of how inspiration can strike.

In previous posts I’ve written about the concept of the Adjacent Possible, formulated by Drs. Bruce Sawhill and Stewart Kauffman at the Santa Fe Institute, an idea that originally grew out of the mathematics of genetic evolution but that eventually grew to encompass a much broader space of concepts.

The story of the book submerged in the waters of the Pacific Ocean is not only an exercise in thinking about the Hero’s Journey (and by extension, the Artist’s Journey), but also about the Adjacent Possible and zero to one.

The Adjacent Possible

Bruce didn’t go on a swim to find a book and be inspired, but it happened anyway. 

It was because he was open to explore the unknown that he literally changed his course to go look at the mysterious object on the bottom of the sea floor, which turned out to be a book.

Researchers who study the phenomenon of luckiness have discovered a couple of personal habits that are highly correlated with people who consider themselves lucky.

The first habit is that they change up their daily routines. They don’t take the same route to work every day, paint with the same palette or tools every day, or exclusively talk to the same group of people every day.

The second habit is they avoid over-scheduling. They leave breathing space in their day for reflection and replenishment.

Making room for surprise

And finally, and perhaps most importantly, they make room for surprise. There’s a German phrase lass’was einfallen which translates to let something fall in.

The Adjacent Possible-Nancy Hillis-The Artists Journey

The Adjacent Possible-Nancy Hillis-The Artists Journey

What use is an Adjacent Possible of surprise, learning, and wonder if there is no time or space to take advantage of it?

You must cultivate an attitude of being surprise-able.

This applies particularly to artists.

Cultivate an attitude of being surprise-able-nancy hillis artists journey

Cultivate an attitude of being surprise-able


What if a Universe of Possibilities is always there, and all we have to do is open our eyes and hearts to allow it in?

We’re swimming in an ocean of possibilities and mostly unaware of it.


Men occasionally stumble over the truth. 

But most of them pick themselves up and hurry off

As if nothing had happened.

Winston Churchill


With gratitude from my studio to yours,


P.S. The Artist’s Journey is named by BookAuthority as  “One of the best creativity books of all time” .

Get your copy here.


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