Structure v Spontaniety: The beauty of the unplanned

SerendipityIn my more pretentious teenage years, I briefly created a word of the week club. This meant I (along with a small number of equally annoying personalities) would slip an archaic or otherwise little used word into conversation where possible over the course of that week.

After a promising start, it fell into terminal decline after an unfortunate incident with the word oleaginous. However, as a one off blast from the past, today’s blog post is brought to you by the little heard and often under-rated noun ‘Serendipity’

One of the most challenging and ultimately depressing documentaries I have seen in recent years was a piece entitled ‘nurturing your child in the hothouse‘. This looked at the importance of providing structure to high potential teenagers in order that they might fulfill their identified promise. Apart from my hostility to the idea that an individuals potential could be evaluated at the age of 14, I continued watching.

LifePlanDuring the broadcast a number of teenagers (past and present) subject to this nurturing approach were introduced. One thing they had in common was a high level of planning.

One young man now attending university had the next year scheduled including the point at which he would propose, when he would be promoted in his career and how many times per week he would go to the cinema. The idea that this level of structured planning might be unrealistic, overdone or even unhelpful was dismissed as a non issue.

Psychologists have long recognised the tension between structure and spontaniety. Many also believe that planning to the lowest level is likely to result in unrealistic and potentially unachievable goals. Some commentators believe this could account for the high and rising levels of anxiety and depression amongst university students. Whilst bringing structure and shape to a day is important when dealing with conditions such as anxiety or depression, it can be overdone. Both the British and American Association of Psychologists suggest short term structure, longer term objectives and avoid planning for things you cant control.

Far from recognising (or at least acknowledging) those risks, those on the hyper planning side of the debate dismissed the concern saying if someone left university unprepared for life they simply hadn’t started to prepare early enough. Some are working fairly intensively with youngsters of 11 and 12 and their family mapping out their future educational path, career and life trajectory. If that is the alternative, I for one would rather be a ‘failure’.

butThis approach to structure and mapping out your future focused on those just about to transition from university to work. However, I’ve seen the same all consuming dependency on structure in those chasing their next promotion or achieving a change in lifestyle.

I certainly don’t criticise those who have ambition and work to achieve their goals, but so many spend so much time doing this they fail (in my humble opinion) to enjoy the moment. Something it has taken me long enough to work out for myself.

In stark contrast, American author Deepack Chopra stresses the importance of spontaniety in our lives. He describes is as providing ‘the exquisite freedom of the unexpected’

I’m all for spontaniety myself, but the problem is (with deliberate irony) there’s a time and a place for it. How many of us can simply decide to do something on whim without considering work, money, existing commitments and the normal demands and responsibilities life places on us?

VWThat said, when I think of the best things in my life they all stem from a spontanious decision. I recently spoke to my partner about how we first met. What scared me was the odds were so heavily stacked againstĀ  it ever happening.

We lived 80 miles apart, both made seperate spontaneous decisions to attend the same event and happened to end up at the same place at the same time. Then I noticed he needed rescuing from a rather persistent deaf admirer and I happened to be able to sign (following another spontanious decision to learn some years earlier). We started talking and I met someone I now can’t imagine living without. Pure unexpected, unplanned and glorious chance. If anyone is able to estimate the odds of that encounter please don’t. I would rather remain blissfully ignorant of that fact.

So as with all things it would seem that a healthy midway point may be the optimum position and that is where in my experience the unexpected can take you by surprise.

From first hearing the word (long before I knew what it meant) in an episode of Dr. Who I have been taken by the idea of serendipity. Variously defined as ‘fortunate happenstance’ or ‘findng something good without looking for it’ this is always an indicator that I’m getting that balance about right.

luckMuch has been written on whether this is just coincidence or whether people who seem to experience these happy accidents are doing something(s) in common.

From studies published in the US and UK, five strands seem to be common behaviours for people reporting frequent moments of serendipity. For myselt, I’m certainly working on them to a greater or lesser extent so was pleased to see they rang true for me. The five common behaviours are:

1. Make time to do something random

The brain, mental faculties and general welbeing seem to respond well to new situations. Falling into a routine can simply reduce the opportunities for new experiences and contacts.

2. Don’t always flock with birds of a feather

As tribal animals, it’s natural for us to gravitate to groups and people with whom we feel comfortable. It appears from research that those who are less tribal and mix with a wider demographic report a higher rate of ‘happy accidents’

3. Don’t be frightened of going slow

Many people struggle with their own company. However, it appears the group in this study are more likely to be comfortable with some time alone. More reported an interest in meditation, mindfulness or similar methods of raising self awareness

4. Be unpredictable and challenge yourself from time to time

When compared to the control group against which they were measured, more were likely to challenge themselves with something that was outside of their normal comfort zone.

5. Keep an open mind

Most subjects in the study scored more highly in their ability to keep an open mind, limit behaviour based on stereotypes and to consider mutiiple views on a subject

How much truth there is in the research I don’t know, but it has sparked my interest enough to work on a couple of the items in that list just a little bit harder. Whether you are a deep planner or go with the flow, I wish you a healthy dose of serendipity.

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