Spread the love

The Search For Creative Perfection- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

The Search For Creative Perfection- This blog post is informed by conversations with Dr. Bruce Sawhill, Stanford educated theoretical physicist and mathematician.


The Search for Creative Perfection


Why is perfection so hard? And why does it seem to get harder the closer you get?

As a competitive swimmer in the late Pleistocene, Bruce noticed this in terms of the amount of time it took to swim a standard distance of 100 yards.

At the beginning of your career, when you’re not very good, it is easy to lop off big chunks of time as you improve – sometimes multiple seconds on something that takes very roughly about a minute.

But as you get better, one starts fighting for (and celebrating, once achieved) tenths of a second or even smaller intervals. More and more work seems to get you less and less.  

This is not personal, it is happening to all of the other swimmers also, so it’s still a good race!


Start of swimming race


We are told that perfection is hard and should be striven for, but we are almost never given a satisfactory explanation, rather just told to put your head down and do it. 

And what if perfection is in the eye of the beholder like a creative work and not universally agreed upon and objectively measurable, like the fastest swim time? I submit to you that it doesn’t matter if it’s subjective or objective, the underlying principles are the same. 

We can frame perfection as a problem in search or optimization – like finding the combination of a lock or like playing one of these games from childhood. 


Children’s dexterity game


This simple and frustrating game contains deep truths about perfection and optimization. In this case, perfection is getting all the balls in all the holes. Even common metaphors encode this truism, such as “getting all of one’s ducks in a row.”

It’s very easy to start.  Just jiggling the game will get several balls in several holes. One thinks, “Ha! I’ve got the Midas touch. Those little balls don’t stand a chance.”  

But as you proceed, you find you are your own worst enemy.  The balls that have already found holes to reside in are in the way of the feral balls rolling around looking for a home. 

Oftentimes the free balls will rudely knock one of the stationary ones out of place and not even stick around to gloat. Then one is knocked back a step, like climbing up a steep scree-covered mountainside.


Hiker on scree slope, New Zealand


A Sisyphean Experience


This is the literal “two steps forward, one step back.” Sometimes it is even “one step forward, two steps back.”


Sculpture of Sisyphus by Richard Croft


Searching & Creativity


Like many things, this process of assemblage can be viewed as a search problem.


We are searching for a configuration of elements-in relationships, in elements of a work of art, or in the construction of an object. We may be attempting to satisfy external criteria or our own. 


As more and more elements come together, more and more possible conflicts and constraints arise. This is a ground truth about complex systems, and in fact could even serve to define the concept.

As one satisfies more and more constraints, each next one becomes harder to satisfy. This search process produces more and more dead ends, more and more backtracking. 

This search process is “dendritic,” from the Greek “dendron” (tree), meaning “branched like a tree.” We are looking for a particular leaf and we start at the trunk. At first there are few choices and it seems easy, but it gets harder as we get further into it. Lots of dead-ends!


Tree-like search structure


Don’t take it personally!  It’s the nature of the beast.


William Blake’s illustration for Dante’s Inferno


Theseus & The Minotaur


Like Theseus and the Minotaur in the labyrinth, it’s good to remember where you’ve been so you don’t do the same backtracking twice. It’s also good to do a lot of experimentation and searching to get to know the landscape of possibility.

As Richard Feynman once said about physics problems, “I’m not a genius. (bald-faced lie) I’ve solved a thousand problems and remembered all of the answers.”


Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman


So when you feel discouraged by all of the dead ends, remember it’s a sign you are getting closer to your ideal.

With gratitude from my studio to yours,



If you enjoy these posts, you’ll love my book. Get your copy today.


Click on the arrow to play the video. Get your copy HERE.



Spread the love