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Timing Art & New Years Resolutions- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

Timing Art & New Years Resolutions- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD


No time is convenient

This is a train of thought that will be occurring to a lot of people in the next days as they make their New Years’ resolutions.

Anything significant and new in one’s life runs into boundaries and constraints, because in general, peoples’ lives are already full.  Life expands to fill the space allotted. 

You didn’t think you’d get away without some science, did you?

When Darwin was thinking about evolution, he described his mental image of the process in an early letter to a friend.

To paraphrase, imagine you are standing on a rough wooden floor made out of irregular pieces of wood. We can imagine that this is the kind of floor that would have been made before the invention of sawmills and factories, made completely with raw trees and hand tools, perhaps in the early 18th century or before.



Old irregular wood floor


Because the floor is so rough, imagine that here are some small cracks between the floorboards.

The process of evolution, in particular the introduction of a new species, is analogous to the process of trying to hammer a wedge into the floor in the dark. Most such experiments fail because the wedge runs into solid wood and is probably not aligned with the grain either, but once in a while the sharp point of the wedge happens to land on a crack in the floor.

But evolution’s work is not yet done.

The wedge now has to be hammered in, displacing other things, bending nails, splintering wood, and generally making a mess.

This is why introducing something new to a functioning networked system is so inconvenient and uncomfortable. It’s not cruel fate picking on you, it is the way of things, and there are good reasons that it is this way.

Existing systems in peoples’ lives tend to be stable and robust, because by definition the ones that aren’t have ceased to exist and morphed into something else. Large uncontrolled events can cause unpredictable cascades of change, and that’s a different and complex subject in itself.

Back to our original consideration of New Year’s resolutions and introducing new aspects into your life.

Unlike the somewhat random nature of evolution, there is the advantage of consideration here. Getting the last mile out of the Darwinian analogy, this is akin to knowing where the cracks in the floor are by shining a light on them or running one’s hand over the planks.

It’s not willy-nilly, but if one doesn’t follow through, it is nilly.

That’s because it still remains to hammer the wedge in, work in the physics sense, force times distance.

This is why most resolutions fail. It’s tiring. Your arms hurt. It’s taking so long. It’s not a good time. It’s never a good time, except in retrospect.

In a recent book by Bent Flyvbjerg, How Big Things Get Done, the author examines a couple of thousand large infrastructure projects worldwide over the last half-century or so, from dams to nuclear reactors to transit systems. 



Arc of concrete dam



What can building nuclear reactors possibly have to do with individual lives and resolutions, let alone art?

Big infrastructure projects involve intention and persistence. Also a great deal of unpredictability and setbacks. It’s an easy argument to make that the timing is never right.

But Dr. Flyvbjerg digs into the differences between successful outcomes and extravagant fiascos. There are many of the latter.  

An important footnote:  One of the efforts that went most over budget and over-time was a building that we have discussed multiple times in this blog before: No less than the Sydney Opera House, which cost about twenty times its original budget. A rare and noteworthy outlier in the statistics, something to chew on when pondering the nature of genius and chance.



Sydney Opera House

Sydney Opera House, Sydney, Australia



In short, the difference is in the details of planning and intention. 

To get something big and disruptive done, the moral of the story is to spend a lot of time planning and then execute quickly before the ground shifts beneath one’s feet, figuratively speaking. As Darwin might have said, spend most of your time looking for a good crack in the floor and less time hammering.

As Abraham Lincoln did say, 

Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the ax.

-Abraham Lincoln





Drawing of axe



(No trees were harmed in the writing of this blog post)

So in terms of resolutions, take your time making the resolution, but when it’s done, move decisively. This will maximize the chances of success. Don’t go to the gym on Jan. 2 and throw your back out in a wild frenzy of weightlifting, study options and make a plan first!



Gym equipment



A small triumph in that vein here, recently:  For 15 years, we’ve grown sweet peas out back.

Maybe this is because the first song Bruce remembers hearing in childhood was “Sweet Pea” by Tommy Roe.

Year after year, we end up planting sweet peas in 4-inch pots from the nursery because it’s already April and we forgot to put a few seeds in the ground in the late fall.

This time we remembered! Stay tuned to see if it works out.



Sweet pea flowers



By the way, Darwin, genetics, combinatorics, and peas are all related by the work of the biologist Gregor Mendel, who studied patterns of inheritance using peas in the 19th century.



Gregor Mendel (1822 – 1884)



Warning: Shameless self-promotion ahead:

Of course, everybody’s resolutions are personal, but we hope some of them include advancing one’s art, and we would like put to forth the option of online self-guided art courses from The Artist’s Journey for your consideration in the New Year. Being self-guided, they are as convenient as something disruptive can get. They are also offered at a special holiday discount now, to make right now more appealing than any other time.

They are:

1. Activating the Canvas, for artists wanting to “stick a toe into” abstract painting.

2. Experimenting with Color, for artists who have always wanted to master color instead of being threatened by it.

3. The Artists Journey: 3 Secrets of the Masters, Nancy’s flagship course that explores the “why” of painting even more than the “how”, and has helped hundreds of artists overcome creative blocks and create joyously.  


With gratitude from our studio to yours,

Nancy & Bruce

P.S. It’s time for your art. Create the art of your dreams. Give yourself or the artist in your life the gift of art. We still have the holiday special until New Year’s Eve!

Get started HERE. 



TAJC - Holiday


Holiday Special on our courses


Go to https://www.artistsjourney.com/online-courses to choose your course.








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