The Mathematics of Meaning exercise


Me, liking sheep

Sheep. I really, really like sheep.

This blog post could be really, really short:


  1. Start a list.
  2. Write down 3-5 things that bring you joy.
  3. Over the next week or two, continue to add things until you reach 100.




A little more explanation? ‘Kay.


What I call ‘The Mathematics of Joy’ or the ‘Mathematics of Meaning’ exercise is the first exercise I give everyone: my creativity students, coaching clients, workshop participants, hair stylists, Lyft drivers, people I grab on the street and yell at ‘Do you want to be more creative? Do this!’, etc. There’s a reason why this is the first exercise, but that’s for a later blog post.


What I will do, however, is give you some guidelines. These are rules in the same way those bouncy bowling guardrails that keep you in the right lane.




  • Think small. Infinitesimally small at times. Instead of ‘my house,’ think ‘the smell of the jasmine plant along the fence of my front yard when it flowers’ or ‘the contrasting green and purple colors in my kitchen.’
  • Memories count. For instance, the memory of UCLA football games with my grandparents brings up images of tailgating feasts, years of growing from going as a little kid to bringing my friends as a teenager (and convincing the crew team selling beer that I was the very short coxswain visiting from Reed College and absolutely, positively 21 years old). I can still picture the Princess Leia-like braided bun of the older woman who always sat in front of us.
  • People don’t count. Other than Tom Hanks, it’s too much pressure for any one human to be expected to elicit nothing but pure joy. (Oh, hold up … the DaVinci Code movie. See?!) But how about individual moments or specific interactions? How about the way your kid still hugs you in front of their friends, or your best friend’s laugh, or how your favorite barista remembers your drink?

That’s it! This is the bedrock exercise, so write the list in a place you’ll return to. My students start a Creativity Notebook in class: one journal or notebook dedicated to exercises, prompts and reminders that spark your creativity.