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Creativity & Menu Of Possibility- Nancy Hillis MD and Bruce Sawhill PhD

Creativity & The Menu Of Possibilities- This blog post is informed by conversations with Dr. Bruce Sawhill, Stanford educated theoretical physicist and mathematician.

Creativity & The Menu Of Possibilities


What’s on the menu?

Many of our blog posts address, in one way or another, the issue of search combined with the question of what to do next. Or in the language we’ve put forth in the last year, combinatorics, constraint, and the adjacent possible.

Since we claim that we live in a world where stepping into the adjacent possible affects the spectrum of possibilities that open up after that, the only concrete question in life is what to do next. Everything else is abstract.

But deciding what to do next requires an awareness of what we *can* do next. And this requires search.

Search for what?  The search for:


  • avenues of creative expression,
  • the surprising and unique,
  • the beautiful and inspirational,
  • the functional and useful.


The Search For Meaning


And perhaps ultimately, the search for oneself- the search for a meaningful life.

Search is a central aspect of human life. One of the wealthiest companies on Earth was built to expedite finding things, at least things that could be put in a digitized format.

Search is an essential component of evolution. Search makes the adjacent possible.

It is essential to keep moving because there is no “forever” equilibrium where one can rest, wallow, and languish.

In the Ides of March blog post, we discussed The Minority Game, a simplified theoretical model of a process that never settles on a final answer. It is a simplified version of the game that all of Life is playing.

The biosphere, the sum of living things, is characterized by endless innovation and churn. 


illustration of biodiversity

Lush rainforest floor


As part of that biosphere, we humans are exposed to this phenomenon as both perpetrators and subjects. It can be a bit schizophrenic at times.


The Role Of Decision


Whenever we are confronted with a decision about what to do next, we have a menu of possibilities. 

But that menu is not fixed in stone, like Moses’ tablets. We often choose the menu, whether consciously or unconsciously.


The Power Of Constraint 


This reminds us of a story of when Bruce taught at St. John’s College in New Mexico.

A fellow faculty member moonlighted by selling cars at a local dealership. He also had two small boys. His role as a father informed his effectiveness as a salesperson.

If a potential customer came to look at cars, he used to ask, “What’s your favorite color?”

He later changed his strategy to ask, “Do you like the red one or the blue one best?” 


New cars in lot


He learned to *constrain* the menu of possibilities to match what was on hand, to purposefully trim the adjacent possible away so that customers wouldn’t ask for products that were not available.

He learned to do this with his children by only giving choices of what was available-“Would you like soup or a sandwich?”, rather than saying, “What would you like for lunch?”


Who Controls What Is On The Menu?


This kind of menu constraint has its place in the world of selling cars or feeding kids lunch, but there are definitely places where it is counterproductive.

The utility of controlling what is on the menu in creative endeavors is a double-edged sword.

You might retort, “The examples of the automotive customers and the hungry kids are instances of intentional manipulation by other people!  Art is different than that.”

Alas, it is even worse. Nobody is better at manipulating ourselves than us.

As the cartoonist (remember cartoons?) Walt Kelly had his namesake character in the comic strip Pogo say,


We have met the enemy and he is us. 


We want to surprise ourselves, to discover whole new worlds of expression, to explore the adjacent possible. This argues for a menu as large as possible. This is the enormous space of combinatorics.

But when we are in the act of creation, a completely unconstrained approach leads to chaos and noise, an outcome totally generic because it does not reflect choice and judgement.


The sum of all choices is no choice at all.


We are confronted with a paradox- We want as large a space of options as possible, including options we cannot even specify beforehand, but we need to decisively cut that huge space down to something manageable.


It seems like a lot of inefficiency and wasted effort, like counting sheep by counting all their legs and dividing by four. 


Counting sheep

Flock of Sheep


Couldn’t we just cut to the chase? Skip all that intermediate hugeness and go right to the good stuff?

It’s like an old saying about marriage: 


There are three secrets to a good marriage. The problem is that nobody knows which three those are.


You only know in retrospect because of what you learned on the way. 

As our frequent virtual contributor Søren Kierkegaard said,


Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.


As we have said before, wherever there is asymmetry something deeply interesting is going on, whether in the physical world, inside of our psyches or in our art.


So we want to decisively choose from a huge menu.


Sometimes closing your eyes and pointing is as good a strategy as any.

True creatives are always dining at places where much of the menu is in a foreign language, figuratively speaking.


incomprehensible foreign writing

Ancient writing on papyrus


With gratitude from my studio to yours,



P.S. I’d like to share with you my new book trailer for The Artist’s Journey: Creativity Reflection Journal.


A playfully illustrated and inspirational self help journal crafted to activate the inner sources of your creativity and the outer reaches of your imagination. Lessons, creative prompts, poetic musings and stories unfold, exhorting you to reflect upon your life and to express your most meaningful and authentic art.

Get your copy HERE



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