Why I Let Chance Into My Life

From Leonardo da Vinci to the Rorschach test, the power of serendipity is full of creative possibilities

A chance collage from Dada artist Johannes Theodor Baargeld
A chance collage from Dada artist Johannes Theodor Baargeld
Johannes Theodor Baargeld (Alfred Emanuel Ferdinand Greunwald; 1892–1927): Typical Vertical Mess as Depiction of the Dada Baargeld (1920). Source Wikimedia Commons

Between design and accident there is a vast gulf as wide as a hair’s breadth. The will to create may seem fiercely deliberate, but creativity is a necessarily porous activity. The difference between intentional and unplanned inspiration is like flipping a coin.

This for me is one of the more perplexing aspects of creativity. Inspiration can strike in the strangest moments, sometimes at the most inappropriate times. Conversely, to have intention — to deliberately work towards a final result from a conceived design — can sometimes lead to a sterile outcome.

Serendipity may help tame the dilemma. Serendipity is about treating chance as an deliberate aid to a better result, to help move away from the same well-worn grooves of your creative mind. It is about using the beneficial side of randomness to break through to new ways of doing things: in the fields of innovation and problem-solving, it’s about letting happy accidents reveal fresh ways forward.

Serendipity has long been recognized as a gateway to new inspiration. It’s a belief, you might say, that chance has a kind of generosity to it and, if you are open to its diversions, can be a source of fresh-thinking.

According to Professor David Kirsh from the Department of Cognitive Science at the University of California, chance plays a privileged role in the creative process, from scientific discovery to the making of art. Chance, he says, “can be used to thwart bias, overcome the drive to imitate past solutions, and stimulate new ideas.”

Kirsh tells the story of the Naskapi Indians, who used the shoulder bone of a caribou — place over a fire until it cracked — as a map to determine where to go hunting next. Ritualistic in nature, the chance fissures in the bone had the benefit of always moving the hunt to new pastures rather than going over old, depleted territory. In this way, serendipity worked as an effective way of generating future plans that were not shaped by habits of the past.

The principle of allowing chance into the creative process goes back at least as far as Leonardo da Vinci, who wrote in his Treatise on Painting of “a new method of assisting invention” by the act of serendipitous free-association.

“If you look upon an old wall covered with dirt, or the odd appearance of some streaked stones, you may discover several things like landscapes, battles, clouds, uncommon attitudes, humorous faces, draperies, etc. Out of this confused mass of objects, the mind will be furnished with an abundance of designs and subjects perfectly new.”

An old wall with plenty to say. Photo by Joe McDaniel on Unsplash

Da Vinci’s notion of finding creative possibilities in the crags and blemishes of an old wall prefigures the famous psychological test devised by the Swiss psychologist Hermann Rorschach, who began presenting his patients with ink-blot stains and asking simply “What might this be?”

The Rorschach test was premised on the idea that the mind is able to make associative leaps to places otherwise hidden, offering the psychologist a starting point to make judgments and diagnoses of character. Whilst recent studies cast some doubt on the verifiability of the Rorschach test, of both finding a standard way of interpreting results and regarding the possibility of people filtering or censoring their responses, the principle of free-association is still important. As one critic remarked about the Rorschach test, perhaps the ink-blot is not even required: “An intense dialogue about the wallpaper or the rug would do as well provided that both parties believe” — which more or less bring us back to Da Vinci’s landscape-stained wall.

The process might be thought of as cultivating the art of diversion: of finding something more interesting than the thing you were looking for in the first place.

The point is that it can’t be planned, but it can be encouraged. For this to happen, the mind has to remain as open and supple as possible, and be willing to appreciate the usefulness of unintended outcomes.

My own technique is to spend time leafing through old encyclopaedias, or listening to random radio broadcasts, or digging out shoe-boxes of faded photographs and old diaries, looking for something that strikes my fancy. If this doesn’t yield the required intervention, then I might venture to the local library where I go looking for a book I vaguely imagine will interest me, only to be happily diverted by something else along the way. If I ever reach an impasse in my creative process, this act of deliberate distraction inevitably rescues me.

Many artists have used chance as an aid to their work. Some have allowed themselves to be guided by the specific traits of their materials, such as the 18th century English landscape painter Alexander Cozens, who noticed that when he sketched his hand was led by the pre-existing marks on page.

The Fallen Tree (1795), by Alexander Cozens. Part of his ‘blot’ landscape series. Source Wikimedia Commons

“The stains,” Cozens wrote, “though extremely faint, appeared upon revisal to have influenced me, insensibly, in expressing the general appearance of landscape.” Cozens encouraged his students to submit to the same chance encounters, sometimes deliberately splashing blots of paint onto the paper as a starting-off point.

The role of chance became a central experience for the surrealist art movement known as Dada. The avant-garde poet Tristan Tzara made poems by reassembling words that had been randomly cut out of newspapers and tipping them from a bag onto the floor. The artist Marcel Duchamp fastened a bicycle wheel to a stool to engineer a deliberately confusing encounter. The point was to disturb the normal flow of things, and by this disruption, perhaps see the world afresh.

The writer Malcolm Gladwell, a strong proponent of serendipity, argues that “the universe of things we do not know is much larger than what we do know –and more importantly, we don’t know what we don’t know.” In the field of science especially, his judgement is that serendipity plays a crucial role. Indeed, psychologist Kevin Dunbar estimates that between 30% and 50% of all scientific discoveries are to some degree accidental.

For example, when the scientist Alexander Fleming, who discovered the antibiotic penicillin, returned from a two week holiday in September 1928, he had no idea that the Petri dishes he’d left accumulating mold would give him the insight into the process of inhibiting bacterial growth. “One sometimes finds what one is not looking for,” he later said.

And according to M. K. Stoskopf, serendipity is the “foundation for important intellectual leaps of understanding” in science. Of course, random inspiration is unlikely to strike unless the framework of doing something with it is already in place. “In the fields of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind,” said Louis Pasteur in a lecture of 1854.

The appeal of serendipity is that it actually accords with the way creativity occurs anyway: as an unfolding collaboration between intention and chance. Only, it makes the link explicit rather than attempting to hide it under the guise of pure ‘inspiration’.

As David Kirsh points out, we tend to view inspiration as a private, internal process. “Traditional experimental studies have taken an internalist perspective and treated thought as something happening entirely within an agent.” Alternatively, Kirsh takes what he calls a more ‘interactionist’ perspective, arguing that “what happens outside a brain often affects what happens inside… Creativity does not occur in a situational vacuum.”

Ultimately, the purpose of inviting serendipity into the creative process is to find new ways of looking at a familiar world. As Kirsh says, “The power of chance lies in its departure from tradition.”

Christopher P Jones writes about culture, art and life. Sign up for more.


A magazine of literature, arts, culture, and opinion

Christopher P Jones

Written by

Art historian, writer, artist. Interested in fact, fiction and culture. Website chrisjoneswrites.co.uk


A magazine of literature, arts, culture, and opinion

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade