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William Tell & The Spices Of Creativity- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

William Tell & The Spices Of Creativity- This post is informed by conversations with Dr. Bruce Sawhill, Stanford educated theoretical physicist and mathematician.


William Tell & The Spices of Creativity


The other day, I was refilling spice jars.  We go through a lot of herbs and spices here since cooking is serious business in this household- so much so that we contact our local hippie grocery store, The Herb Room, with a list of herbs we need. They meet us in the parking lot and hand over a dozen or so little baggies of various bits of mostly green matter, a kind of legal drug deal. We abscond with the loot, with no intention of smoking it, though sautéing occurs frequently. 

In the process of refilling jars, quite a lot of ingredients end up on the counter.


Spices and Jars


Spices & Creativity


Is there an ideal way to perform this task? 

A tradeoff is involved. There is the initial pour of ingredients into the little jar, using a funnel or a piece of stiff folded paper. The faster one pours, the more the herbs tend to get spilled. 

Then there’s the time spent chasing down the spills on the counter and putting them into the jar. 

These two effects counterbalance each other.

If you are super careful with the initial pour, you don’t need to sweep-up spills- but it takes forever, tapping the little funnel and wondering why you didn’t just buy a regular sealed jar of herbs at a big grocery store like normal people. 


The William Tell Approach


I call this the “William Tell” approach, treating the job like you’ve got one shot at it.

As the legend goes, in 1307, William (Wilhelm) Tell was forced to shoot an apple off his own son’s head as punishment for not saluting the local ruler’s hat. In the language of a previous post on games, this is a “reward cliff.”


Wilhelm Tell sculpture, Altdorf, Switzerland


The Iterative Approach


The opposite extreme is iterative—many spills, many corrections, some fall on the floor. But overall, it can end up being faster if you don’t go overboard on the spilling.

It’s a challenge to find profound lessons in spice jars, but it’s a good starting point. We can extend this to a more pervasive example.


Governing Principles


In the governing of human affairs, there are two approaches that are persistent.


First Principle


The first is to anticipate regulations required for the smooth functioning of society and create laws that delineate every imaginable boundary to ensure society stays orderly. This tends to work well for a while, then less so. The reason it degrades is that society changes in ways that unforeseen and laws do not keep up.

At the beginning of the 20th century, automobiles were a new invention, and they required new laws. In Ohio in 1895 there were supposedly only two cars. They ran into each other because there were no rules of the road.


Second Principle


The second approach is more iterative- have laws in place for aspects of human behavior that have been present for many generations, but also incorporate flexibility to rule on new developments.

This is sloppier, more labor intensive, but ultimately more robust because it adapts to a changing reality. Taking this too far results in endless wrangling with the lack of a “core”, but some adaptability is good.

Justice may be blind, but it doesn’t mean she can’t be supple.


Statue of ‘Justice’, New York City Courthouse


The Sweet Spot


The hallmark of many complex systems is a sweet spot, a stable and self-perpetuating balancing of opposing forces.

What does this line of reasoning have to say about creativity?


Observation #1: Expecting perfection without correction and iteration can be time consuming, and because of that time expenditure it ends up being counterproductive, as there are fewer experiments and starts.


It is psychologically wearing because there is the ever-present fear of making a mistake or ruining the work. It may be best for William Tell, but it is not so good for most artists under most circumstances.

There are exceptions.

Rumor has it that Mozart never erased or crossed anything out. Sometimes artistic works are created alla prima, all in one go, and are wholeor “through composed” (durch komponiert) at every stage of their development.


Mozart notebook without corrections


Observation #2: Creativity is about exploration, and exploration is about iteration.


Exploring the unknown, the adjacent possible, is a fundamentally iterative procedure, like the Dutch building dikes to incrementally capture more and more of the sea-bed. Each exploration creates a new bit of “land” to stand on for the next exploration and incorporation.


Netherlands-dikes and windmill


Observation #3: Exploring the spectrum between alla prima and extreme iteration is a worthwhile exercise in itself. It relates to the spectrum between rigid order (like a metronome) and endless churn (like visual static) that we have discussed previously.


Here’s hoping this has added some spice to your creative process.


With gratitude from my studio to yours,



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