Happy accidents want to be found, but they don’t like being sought out. These beautifully complicated anomalies appear when you least expect them. They are fed by a genuine and general curiosity of all things, and they usually present themselves as a collision of interdisciplinary ideas resulting from uncluttered awareness and a conditioned-free perspective.
Can we engineer these amazing moments?
Unfortunately not. What we can do is build the pathways, mindset, and environment to increase the likelihood of their appearance. Happy accidents don’t announce themselves with bullhorns, fanfare, and confetti, nor do they appear in familiar places. These mystical orchestrations stem from experiences in unlikely disciplines that unknowingly collect and quietly extend to one another behind the scenes.
What can we do to lay the groundwork?
One of the prerequisites for happy accidents is, what Cal Newport calls, career capital. In order to connect the dots, it helps to pull from a variety of experiences, but we often stay in the comfort zones of activities in which we excel. It’s okay to not know the answer. It’s acceptable to have no clue. Embracing the beginner’s mind will lead to being comfortable with the uncomfortable. We put unnecessary pressure on ourselves and our children to pick one path to follow, whether it be a particular discipline, career choice or skill. The best path can be one that stops at different stations, takes unexpected turns and lands in a place you never even knew existed.
On the other hand, our biggest fans tell us to follow our passion. As children, it’s difficult to define a career path, and when we are older, we’ve been conditioned by our environment and too distracted by noise to really listen to ourselves about our passion. Break the patterns and you will be amazed at your discoveries. You can find your passion by building career capital, which is earned by trying and failing at different experiences, working in multiple disciplines and releasing all expectations.
If you are willing, you may find your passion at the end of a happy accident.
Leave it alone, for Pete’s sake.
Our subconscious is surprisingly intuitive if we allow it the freedom to do its job. Many of these realizations come to life only after you stop thinking about them. Sometimes a hard reset or a change in your environment can be helpful. Some of the world’s most creative people carve out time in their day for walks. Not for physical exercise, although it is a secondary benefit, a walk will let the mind wander and embrace the simplicity of the world. When was the last time you let your mind wander unpredictably for more than thirty minutes? To give myself a full reset, I’ve been experimenting with batching phone calls in the mid to late afternoon during long walks away from my office, and I’ve found it to be a good creative jolt. According to author and advertising veteran, James Webb Young, leaving a project alone for a bit can be the key to creativity. In his seminal work, A Technique for Producing Ideas, one of the five steps to the creative process is to leave your work alone and let your subconscious take over.
Could he be referring to creating environments for happy accidents?
When you reach this third stage in the production of an idea, drop the problem completely and turn to whatever stimulates your imagination and emotions. Listen to music, go to the theater or movies, read poetry or a detective story.
James Webb Young
Stillness as the source.
Like the happy accident, true stillness cannot be forced. It is in the focus of the quiet mind that creativity is born, which forms the basis for the innovative nature of the happy accident. Our mind is a tremendous tool that often operates like an engine whose oil has transformed into a coagulated friction-inducing amoeba. The world is noisy, and noise is the enemy of divergent thinking. Without the proper insulation, the amplified chaos and noise of the world stands in the way of creative impulse and happy accidents. Truth be told, that meditating one time will not turn you into the next Pablo Picasso. However, the quiet mind is the root of creativity.
But that stillness of the mind cannot be sought after, it cannot be pursued; if you pursue and bring about that stillness of mind, it has a motive, and such stillness is never still because it is always a movement toward something and away from something.
Krishnamurti – Total Freedom
Listen to NASA.
NASA took a more scientific approach and tasked two researchers, Dr. George Land and Beth Jarman, to develop a test to help them find the most creative people in the world. These are the people who are magnets for happy accidents. They are not lucky. They are committed to a process that allows the mind to connect the dots. Land and Jarman created a test to try and understand where creativity comes from by measuring an individual’s ability to tackle problems with divergent thinking.
Spoiler alert: Creativity is grown in the minds of five-year-olds.
Original Test: 1,600 students between the ages of four and five years old
Results: 98% of the group tested in the genius category.
Inspired by the results, they decided to follow the same group over a number of years.
Second Test: The same 1,600 students now between the ages of nine and ten.
Results: 30% of the group tested in the genius category.
After just five years of school, 68% of the initial group fell out of the genius category.
Third Test: The same 1,600 students now between the ages of fourteen and fifteen.
Results: 12% of the group tested in the genius category
Yikes. More than another 50% dropped out of the genius category.
See a trend developing?
Adult Tests: The test was given to groups of adults over 25 years old.
Results: 2% of the group tested in the genius category
The sample size of this study was not limited to the groups mentioned above. In fact, this test has been administered to other groups over the years with frighteningly similar results. We lose our innate ability to innovate and express our creativity as we move away from divergent thinking. Without divergent thinking, we are reduced to regurgitating memorized chunks of words rather than letting patience and curiosity lead the way to discovery.
Back to happy accidents …
I want to tell you a story about my friend Scott.
Scott is a guitar player and a guitar maker.
A visceral experience at five years old serves as the foundation for his intimate relationship with music. He was awoken in the middle of the night by a strange sound. It wasn’t the radio or the record player. It was music but it had a character that he hadn’t experienced before. Led by his curiosity, he peered down the hall, and as he rounded the corner to the basement door he could begin to feel it. He opened the door to find Kansas City jazz legend, Gary Civils performing at an afterparty hosted by his parents. For Scott, the world had a different hue after this full collision with pure musical expression.
Guided by this powerful catalyst, Scott went on to explore music throughout school and after responding to an open letter in the newspaper, he earned an opportunity to work at Mossman Guitars, where he began his career as a luthier and craftsman. Four years later, he found himself in Nashville at Gruhn Guitars where he restored vintage Martin and Gibson guitars. These vintage instruments from the late 1930s had a sound, unlike any other acoustic guitar. The guitar world is flooded with opinions linking this highly-sought after tone to the various design components of the instrument and the materials used in its construction. Scott felt a pinch of that same child-like curiosity that drove him to get to the bottom of this mystery. He began to painstakingly inspect each of these masterpieces using small lightbulbs in a dark room, which allowed him to understand how these guitars were put together without having to take them apart. Years later, this research project would yield a personal design philosophy that pinpoints the soul of guitar tone. This Baxendale Ratio was the building block for his artistry and craftsmanship in the guitar-making world.
As he began making his own guitars, Scott applied his design principle with unprecedented results. Baxendale guitars are featured on Grammy-nominated records, have graced the stage at the Ryman Auditorium and are played by the likes of Patterson Hood, Willie Nelson, Jason Isbell, Luther Dickinson and Brittney Howard.
Fast forward a few more years and Scott’s son had expressed interest in learning the luthier craft. Scott had a few old, battered Kay and Harmony guitars sitting around the shop, and he thought they would be the perfect sacrificial teaching tool. Kay and Harmony guitars were sold through Sears and other retailers in the 1950s as starter guitars.
Scott’s Happy Accident
Scott’s first lesson to his son involved taking apart one of these guitars and rebuilding it from the ground up. After showing him one, he left his son to complete the next one. The happiest of accidents occurred when Scott decided to apply the Baxendale Ratio design principle to these Harmony and Kay rebuilds. Scott and his son were astounded at the results. These guitars rang like bells. He was on to something special, and the word traveled fast.
It was a Gene Autry model from the early 1930s, built for children in the Harmony factory and sold through Sears & Roebuck catalogs. Legend has it George Jones learned guitar on one just like it. Scott had rebuilt it, re-braced it, and put a fine pickup system inside it. When I tried playing it through my Fender Deluxe Reverb amp, it worked perfectly for “What It Means.” It gave me the exact sound I had been looking for.
(from Into the Perilous Night – Bitter Southerner)
Through experimentation without expectation, awareness and connecting the dots, Scott turned old starter guitars that were discarded and left for dead into professional instruments with undescribable character and tone.
Among many others, I am a proud beneficiary of this happy accident.
Innovation is never guaranteed, but its voice is always broadcasting.
With a quiet mind, you just might hear it calling out.
Think what could happen if you listened.
For a deeper look at Scott’s story, you can listen to the latest episode of our podcast, Music Is, where we explore the creative process and the definition of music from unique perspectives.
Click to listen to Episode 4 of Music Is presented by Tunewell Music: