Creative Extravagance

Throw some stuff against the wall and see what sticks

via Stable Diffusion (prompt listed below)

I want to learn how to make beautiful things. 

But when I aim for beauty I end up getting stuck. I inevitably start trying to avoid creating ugliness—or worse—mediocrity. I think this is a product of our collective narrative around efficiency and focus. We believe that true beauty is economical, and that true experts never create anything ugly or mediocre. This is a trap. Ugliness and mediocrity are an inevitable bridge to the creation of beauty.

I’ve come to believe that the best way to create is to create everything. To be profligate, spendthrift, extravagant. To make and make and make and let the rest take care of itself. That, after all, is what nature does.

In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek Annie Dillard examines this property of nature. She wants to know: what makes beauty in nature? She finds that nature’s beauty is a function of its infinite intricacy, and the whole book is itself a study of that intricacy. 

She talks about the 228 muscles in the head of a caterpillar. She traces light as it emanates from a star millions of miles away, bounces off clouds and land dust, and ends up reddened and soft on the wall in her kitchen. She describes the Henle’s loop—a tiny structure in the human kidney which helps to facilitate the filtration of blood. “I’ve got…two million Henle’s loops, and I made them all myself, without the least effort. They’re undoubtedly my finest work.” She describes watching red blood cells pulse through the fin of a fish, and the six million leaves that can be found on a big elm.

And how does this intricacy come about? “Evolution, of course, is the vehicle of intricacy.”

Yes, in order to create the intricate being that is you and everything around you, millions and millions of beings—large and small, arthropod and mammalian, aquatic, amphibious, and terrestrial—living and dying over millions and millions of years had to come before you.

And what are the core ingredients of this evolution? To Dillard: freedom, death, and time. 


Most accounts of nature seem to find that nature is economical and perfect. Dillard thinks you can disprove this by simply opening your eyes. 

“Look, in short, at practically anything—the coot’s feet, the mantis’s face, a banana, the human ear—and see that not only did the creator create everything, but that he is apt to create anything.”

Dillard tells us that there is no one standing over evolution with a blue pencil to say, “Now that one, there, is absolutely ridiculous, and I won’t have it.” Creation is free to create anything, and if the creature makes it—it makes it. “Is our taste so much better than the creator’s?”

She describes the African Hercules beetle which is so big it “drones over the countryside at evening with a sound like an approaching airplane.” Or South American ants some of whom act as storage vessels for honey “with abdomens so swollen they cannot walk…regurgitating food to the workers when it is needed.”

When it comes to nature, anything goes. 


Of course, selection acts on the forms of creation.

Learn more

This post is for
paying subscribers

Subscribe →

Or, login.

Read this next:


The Four Kinds of Side Hustles

The CEO of Kettle and Fire breaks down how he thinks about side business opportunities

421 Sep 16, 2020 by Justin Mares


How Josh Kaufman Does Research 

The author of The Personal MBA shares his process for finding answers hiding in plain sight

185 đź”’ Aug 20, 2020


The CEO with an Empty Calendar

How the founder of Doist manages a team of 80 without meetings

194 Aug 11, 2020 by Dan Shipper


Announcing Our Newest Thesis Headliner: Eugene Wei

We are 60% sold out—buy tickets while you can!

11 Jan 26, 2023


Advice for Building in AI

Separating the signal from the noise

75 Jan 25, 2023 by Nathan Baschez

If you’re not curious you’re not doing your job.

Get one essay a day from the most interesting thinkers in tech


Already a subscriber? Login