Happy accidents

I am a firm believer in the happy accident. I may have said this before. I don’t mean purely random serendipity. Any dipity-shit can get that sometimes, but mostly not. I mean the sort of emergent event where a loose collection of good elements collated in a loosely enabling process dynamically configure in an unexpectedly, even unexpectably delightful way.

I think it’s possible (by definition, see above) to arrange things so there are more happy accidents, and fewer. The single best way to minimize the possibility of happy accidents is to carefully control everything about the inputs and processes of a situation. In academe one regularly sees this in curriculum and syllabus design, where ponderous machineries of micromanagement are deployed to assure that an outcome better than bad and worse than good occurs. In contrast, a happy accident-friendly situation is characterized by a certain flexibility toward both input and processes. “The best way to control people is to encourage them to be mischievous,” Shunryu Suzuki says (Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind). Divergence from norms and ideals must be tolerated, even encouraged (selectively and not infinitely, to be sure) on the theory that it’s precisely norms and ideals that are inhibiting the happy accident. Just one of many reasons to be traitorous towards norms and ideals.

Although I pretty much run my life according to the happy-accidental principle of assembling good elements and letting them do their thing, two recent moments brought this into focus for me. The first, about which I’ll need to be vague to protect a personal and collective privacy, happened in one of my classes. As usual we’ve noodled around quite a bit and I’ve tolerated/encouraged all sorts of tangents to cultivate a spirit of investigation and to see where they might go. The other day it all came together in a moment where one of the students made a series of personal revelations that in context were so striking, and so helpful to our understanding of the world around us, that for a moment the class became more than it could possibly have been if I had strictly dictated content and process. Over the course of the semester we had all learned some things together, developed a group process, and established a trust without which this moment wouldn’t have been possible. But any given class meeting might well have seemed like a complete waste of time to a conventional observer.

The second moment was watching a movie Rachel and I quite like, “The Fall,” through the lens of the director’s commentary. Tarsem talks about a process of creation taking 17 years, in which he patiently assembled influences, techniques, collaborators, locations, and favors due. The catalyst was a young Romanian actress to play the lead. Tarsem and the other actors provided a stimulating immersive environment, then allowed her to improvise creatively within that loose structure and bring all the elements together into an imaginative whole much greater than the sum of the parts.

So many great things work like this: jazz, inspired oratory, the Iron Chef, Dutch soccer. As Picasso said, “creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.”

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3 Comments

  1. This one thread in a broad theme of the generation of novel forms. It calls to mind evolutionary processes of selection where iterated processes of error + selection yield selection-good results. I like your notion that one can organize things in such a way that happy accidents are more frequent. It seems true to me.

    I have no great expertise in genetics or evolutionary theory, but I sometimes wonder whether selection and random mutation alone has enough time to generate ‘good’ results when the production of genetic variety is biased so far toward deleterious effects, and whether or not some process that biases toward happier accidents is not in fact needed (though perhaps the Baldwin effect is an answer to that, I don’t know).

    One thing missing perhaps is memory or reproducibility. I’ve had many happy accidents on the guitar which I have never been able to reproduce. A happy genetic accident does not mean much if the genetic configuration is soon erased. And a lesson from the classroom is lost unless it is learned (and better yet, passed on).

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  3. You hit a critical point about reproduceability. I think in general we may be talking about two distinct ethics, aesthetics and pragmatics. It’s not self-evident that identical reproduction is desirable. One difference between chamber music and jazz is that in principle the chamber music is always played the same way (of course in practice it’s not), whereas if you play jazz the same way every time it stops being jazz. (And recorded jazz just isn’t quite the same as live jazz.) What’s cool about jazz is in part those inspired moments of invention that come and go. Of course it takes tremendous preparation of talent, skill and setting to enable those moments, but there’s no sense in which reproducing them exactly is the goal.

    The way biological reproduction is jury-rigged out of cludgy arrangements of chemistry and tubing pretty much guarantees reproduction-fail if the goal is perfect transmission, and the same can be said of culture. Within tolerances the resulting theme-and-variation enables a diversity that is in a sense pre-adapted to environmental variability. It’s only in extreme conditions that selection pressures are going to enforce a singular configuration, and of course that particular hyper-specialized adaptation will be highly vulnerable to changing conditions. Like academics.

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