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Creativity-The Artists Journey-The Goldilocks Zone-Nancy Hillis

Creativity-The Artists Journey-The Goldilocks Zone-Nancy Hillis

Creativity & The Goldilocks Zone

Most of us remember the story of Goldilocks and her encounter with the three bears when she went for a perfectly innocent journey through a deep dark forest and came to an innocuous house whose door was wide open.

Of course she didn’t find anything odd about this situation (because it’s a fairy tale) and walked right in and availed herself of what she found there, namely three bowls of porridge in the kitchen.

One of the bowls of porridge was too hot, the other too cold, the third just right, so she ate up the third bowl of porridge after sampling all of them.

Feeling sated and tired she went in search of somewhere to sit down and she found a room with three chairs.

Two of the chairs were too big but the third was just right. She sat in it and all was briefly well until it broke into pieces, perhaps from the weight of the extra porridge she had just eaten.

Apparently not worrying about the consequences of breaking and entering or maybe entering and breaking in this case, she found three beds, one of them not too big, not too small but just right and got into it. We leave Goldilocks fast asleep at this point and get on with our blog.

Searching & Optimization

Goldilocks was searching for a situation that worked for her, ‘optimization’ in more modern parlance. She was doing this search meticulously and experimentally, trying all the possibilities and selecting the best ones. I believe this process occurs in our lives all the time, both consciously and subconsciously.

But optimization is a tricky thing. Too much of it can be as bad as too little of it. Goldilocks pushed her luck by going to sleep in the bears’ bed and being surprised by their return.    

This story of Goldilocks lives on in many guises, even in outer space.

Astronomers engaged in the search for habitable worlds orbiting stars other than our own talk of the Goldilocks Zone. This name refers to the habitable zone around a star where the temperature is just right – not too hot and not too cold – for liquid water to exist.

Since it is now possible to detect planets around hundreds of other nearby stars, hope is growing that there is one or more that might support life similar to our own and either support their own ecosystems or be suitable for human colonization.

But the ingredients for life to flourish, at least as we know it, are complex. There are lots of constraints that must be satisfied for something so complex as life to occur.

Paradoxically, life as we know it is very simple in that it is made primarily out of four ingredients-hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen.

But for those four elements to do their thing, lots of other conditions must be satisfied. There can’t be too much gravity or everything is smashed flat as a pancake. Too little gravity and the atmosphere floats away and worlds are unprotected from blasts of radiation.

Too hot and everything is boiling lava. Too cold and everything is ice and nothing stirs. And on and on it goes.

A planet has to be ‘just right’, like that 3rd bowl of porridge.

Out of over 4,000 exoplanets discovered, about 20 of those are considered potentially Earth-like, so that’s pretty special porridge.

If things are just right out there in the cosmos, those four fundamental ingredients can work wonders over time. So far, Earth is the only place we know for sure where this has happened. But it’s a big Universe and we’ve only begun to discover what we suspect are billions of planets.

If all of these planetary constraints are met, there seems to be no fundamental physical reason that life in its marvelous richness wouldn’t occur.

It is paradoxical- One needs to satisfy many constraints to arrive at a situation where vibrant complexity and variety can occur, which itself is built from simple building blocks.

An explosion of creativity only occurs in a constrained system. Life is simultaneously robust and fragile.

But what if the constraints are met too well?

The temperature never changes, there is no weather or seasons, no dark and light cycles. 

There is essentially nothing to mark time.


For evolution to occur, we believe that there must be variation—different living things have varying responses to different stimuli, and that causes some of them to flourish and others to go extinct, which in turn creates and perpetuates differences and builds a robust and adaptable ecosystem.

But if nothing varies then nothing evolves, and life never changes.

And because it does not change, it is not life as we know it, as change is how we know life-a thing that happens in time, like music.

Change is how we know life- a thing that happens in time, like music.


In terms of constraint, there can be too much of a good thing. Back to Goldilocks: “Not too much, not too little, but juuuust right.”

I submit to you that the requirements for biological creativity in the form of life to occur out in the Universe have parallels in the human world of artistic creativity.

Creativity is more than just novelty. 

If a system cannot take advantage of and build upon novelty, it is all for naught.

If all possible sounds are heard simultaneously, it is just static. If all possible patterns of color and value are seen simultaneously, it is visual mud.

Creativity’s other half is incorporation, working in tandem with novelty and surprise.

A surprise is worth very little unless it is remembered, in life and in art. And surprises in art are remembered because they are embedded in a context.

Earlier I referred to life being primarily composed of only four ingredients. Here is yet another parallel with Art-

  • 12 tones in much of music,
  • 3 fundamental colors in painting,
  • a small number of letters or symbols for writing, and so forth.

But for those simple ingredients to become something spectacular, they have to live in an environment that allows them to flourish.

Art needs a space that allows for novelty but also for integration.

Tones become symphonies, letters become novels, colors become painting though cultivating the interplay between the new and the already extant.

In an earlier blog post, I discussed the adjacent possible as a way of thinking about and fostering creativity.

Is this inconsistent with a discussion of integration, optimization, and context? No! 

The adjacent possible has to be adjacent to something, the center has to hold, even if you don’t know what the center is when you start out.

With gratitude from my studio to yours,




P.S. Get a copy of my new book: The Artist’s Journey Creativity Reflection Journal and pair it with our complimentary program: The Creativity Immersion Program (Daily Creativity Prompts & Affirmations and a 5 Lesson Workshop coming in mid to late February).

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