Happy Accidents: Why Staying Open Should Be Part of Your Plan

After I finished my session on creativity at the How Design Live conference, a woman approached me and handed me a note.

“I know now that I was meant to be here,” she said, dreamily. “I mean, I’m not even part of this conference.”

Wait…what?

But before I had time to call security, she was gone. That woman is fast.

Her note was cryptic, too: She wrote that clearly the Universe had played a part in getting her to my session (the rest of us registered). If I want to know more, she says, I could call her.

Later in the conference I saw creative director turned creative activist and sometime troublemaker Jeff Greenspan (Buzzfeed, Facebook, BBDO) speak on how to make your work compelling to other people.

Jeff has made headlines over and over again with his “side projects” in which he does things like lay hipster traps all over the New York City, and erect a bronze bust of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene park.

He says that, yes, quite a bit of planning and expense have gone into the brilliant and disruptive stunts he and his creative partner Andy Tider have pulled off over the years.

But, there have also been amazing things that just happened.

Such as when the police came and hung a tarp over Snowden’s statue—a lovely bit of stagecraft he couldn’t have planned for, which created the visual irony of the government covering up the face of the man who risked his life to expose the government. It was the icing on his rebel cake. (More on that whole project here.)

Lots of other very cool things have happened in Jeff’s creative life that have earned him headlines and accolades, paying work—and allowed him tap a wellspring of collective energy from all over the world.

Is he lucky? Guided by the invisible hand of The Universe?

“You don’t get happy accidents if you don’t put yourself in accidents’ way,” he says.

Ah. And given the risk in standing up and saying anything contrarian (which Jeff is not afraid to do), it’s no wonder most of us might defer, might instead stay where it’s safe and quiet, and out of the way.

Interesting, right?

One woman wanders into a conference she didn’t register for and calls it divine intervention; a man performs an illegal act that triggers a media event better than he could have imagined, and he calls it a happy accident.

Both had some kind of plan in place (though in truth I am very curious about what that woman was up to). But what they did was leave their doors open a crack.

Whether you believe your life is guided or a series of random events, a bit of magic is at play. Something that’s beyond your control.

So what does that mean? It means your job is to put some conditions in place, but it’s also your job to keep your heart open and, as creative sherpa Sam Harrison said at his session, “available for seduction.”

That is what an artist—anyone looking to discover or create something—must do.

In his book Creativity, famous psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (who introduced the concept of “flow”) studied how creative people think and work, and one of my favorite takeaways is this:

“Creative people are constantly surprised.” – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi 

They don’t assume they know what’s going on, he says, nor do they assume anyone else does. I love this. Because that’s the source of childlike wonder and brilliant perspective.

You can’t discover what you’re not curious to know, and the fact that we can’t know everything is, I think, an advantage. Discovery requires a bit of darkness in order to shine.

I’ll add this: The dreamy lady and Jeff also broke the rules; they did things you’re not “supposed” to do. Now, I don’t think you have to perform illegal acts to make things happen. But to invite divine intervention, inspiration, or happy accidents, you need to be open to the unexpected, to the what ifs, to the flow of things outside your control.

We can all have happy accidents and find ourselves the recipient of some benevolence, some great wonder, if we’re willing to wade out into it, and, when we feel the lift of that mysterious tide, start swimming. Hard.

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