How to encourage coincidence and discomfort
Updated: Aug 13, 2019
confidence causes our blind spot to grow. We think we see more – even as the landscape shrinks.
When we reflect on an experience, one moment tends to stands out. Usually it's the best moment, or the worst. Or the most special. But what is special? What makes memorable moments memorable? And what makes them effective? To learn about impact, I study moments that stay with you. Here's what I've learnt from Peggy and Stan Strip.
There's a deadline coming up fast and they've got nothing.
The scene: a hotel room in the 1960s, a man and a woman together, working, brainstorming. The man, Stan, is lying on the bed, flipping through a copy of Playboy. Peggy, his newly appointed colleague, is at the table; furiously jotting down ideas. There's a deadline coming up fast and they've got nothing. While this doesn't seem to bother Stan too much, it drives Peggy completely nuts. At some point Peggy strips down and dares him get naked too, just to provoke a response.
This scene from the TV-series Mad Men captures something the creative industry is losing. And it’s not sexism (which is still endemic). It’s the confidence and patience to let something happen. To trust in serendipity. Back to Peggy and Stan. They pitch their storyboard, an ad about a man coughing in church and, embarrassed, quickly soothing his cough with some Vicks. The idea was inspired by the embarrassment Stan felt when Peggy got undressed.
What looked like stupid indolence was actually quite productive.
So it worked. What looked like stupid indolence was actually quite productive. Stan simply allowed coincidence to happen and was ready to seize on its opportunities. Today we have of course moved on from those primitive times. Our professional lives are streamlined for optimal effectiveness; we work in a state of constant agility and focus. A designer or director today gets more done in a week than Don Draper in a year. But as we focus we necessarily narrow our scope, missing great ideas and solutions mere inches away. We’re like professional tennis players, relying on routines and instinct to survive on court. Any practice time we have is dedicated to honing skills that give us an edge on that same court.
the curse of confidence
As our view becomes narrower, we feel more comfort and greater certainty.
All this blinds us to what happens off court. The more we master the world we know, the more we ignore what lies beyond. In her book Wilful Blindness: Why we ignore the obvious at our peril, entrepreneur Margaret Heffernan explains how confidence causes our blind spot to grow. As our view becomes narrower, we feel more comfort and greater certainty. We think we see more – even as the landscape shrinks. Coincidences offer a way out. When Peggy stripped down, the sheer unexpectedness of her action created brand new possibilities. It also made for a great office story.
The improbability principle
Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day
Happy coincidences are gift for a creative project. So it makes sense to make them happen more often. Can we create coincidences? Is there a scientifically sound way to invite the extraordinary into our lives? I spoke about this with professor David Hand, author of The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day. He told me about a man, Roy Sullivan, who got struck by lightning seven times over period of 35 years. Now suppose you want to meet such a man. This seems entirely impossible and senseless until you start applying Professor Hand’s laws of improbability:
1. The Probability Lever. The first thing to do is realise that Roy Sullivan was a ranger. It helps to be out in nature, a lot, if you want meet people who have been struck by lightning.
2. Near Enough. Second, encountering a man who got struck seven times would be incredible, but wouldn’t bumping into someone with four strikes also be astonishing? That’s the Law of Near Enough.
3. Inevitability. Realise that if being struck by lightning is possible, a multiple strike will happen too at some point. This should open your mind and remove cynicism. Someone, somewhere, will get struck as time rolls on. It’s inevitable.
4. Truly large numbers. Then, you'll want to see as many people as possible, all over the world. Talk to strangers and bring up the topic of lightning, increasing your chances of finding your Roy with every conversation.
5. Selection. Finally, allow yourself to be astonished about the improbabilities you actually find, not by the one you set out to find. Professor Hand calls this the Law of Selection. Selection is about embracing what is there, and dropping your agenda.
To overcome the curse of confidence, we should watch Peggy and Stan Strip and learn to encourage coincidence and discomfort. If we want to create better solutions, and have more fun and seize more opportunities, we should become better at managing improbability.
Acting on this insight, I've been applying the improbability principle in a film project; a holistic detective documentary about finding my favourite fiction character in the real world. And it works. Things are happening, people are joining the search and coincidences are piling up. You haven’t seen Tom Bombadil by any chance, have you?