See What Sticks: Everyday Happy Accidents

Hi everyone, Amma Marfo here. Two quick things about me that you’ll need to know before we begin: (1) I am a reader. I am a library-loving, constant tome-carrying, unapologetic bibliophile. (2) If there’s anyone you will meet who can connect what she’s reading to the world around her, it’s me. As such, I want to dedicate my time in this space to sharing with you what I’m reading, and how it could inform a budding professional’s daily life.

I want to first start with a general point of information: those with paid subscriptions to Hulu have access to The Joy of Painting. Do you remember The Joy of Painting? Think trees, liquid white...and Bob Ross.

I remember Bob Ross not just for his soothing voice, ability to create an unreal landscape painting in just twenty five minutes, or for his encyclopedic collection of paints, but also for his patience and acceptance of mistakes. Calling them “happy accidents,” Ross normalized the smudges, misstrokes, and extra bobbles of our brush that we may have otherwise beat ourselves up about as kids- and frankly, would likely beat ourselves up about today.

Ross and his stance on happy accidents came to mind recently as I dove into Tom and David Kelley’s Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All. Recommended to me enthusiastically while on a recent trip to IDEO’s Boston offices, i loved it for its equal emphasis on the importance of a creative mindset, and on building the habits and competencies required to put it into action. Near the end of chapter 3, Tom and Dave reveal themselves to be men after Bob’s heart, as they describe the role that happy accidents can play in important creative breakthroughs:

Successful scientists must have been extremely susceptible to such happy accidents because there are dozens of such stories in the history of science and invention. From penicillin to pacemakers, and from saccharin to safety glass, a lot of discoveries have come into this world because scientists noticed that one of their mishaps or mistakes had turned into a breakthrough. Their success-from-failure stories indicate not only that they were keen observers, but also that they were conducting a lot of experiments to begin with.

The challenge in this approach for many of us lies in granting ourselves the time, space, and forgiveness to experiment, and make happy accidents en route, on the scale of people like Pasteur, Goodyear, and others. How do we create a life that doesn’t just allow, but encourages, these moments?

Time: Resist falling into the trap of believing that creativity is best unleashed in the absence of other commitments, time constraints, or trappings of daily life. The opposite is often true, in fact- the cross-pollination of ideas that happens organically in a full life primes the mind for creativity. To invite the muse into your life, schedule a date with her! Set aside half an hour before work, before bed, on a Friday, or another time, to attack a problem or brainstorm ideas for a project. They might not come right away, but don’t give up! They’ll get there.

Space: Most of us are charged to do work in a space that doesn’t inspire us very much. Cubicles or industrial offices, fluorescent lighting, and the threat of distraction do not an ideal idea incubator make. If you can, I’d recommend taking a break to switch up your surroundings, even if that can only happen via a short jaunt down the hall our around the block. Alternatively, if mobility seems less likely, try personalizing your space with things that make you feel inspired: quotes, art, pictures of friends or family. Ensuring that your space welcomes creative thought can make a world of difference between a breakthrough and what feels like a block.

Forgiveness: Speaking of blocks, there will be many. There will countless failed or imperfect attempts to reach your goal. But for many who we laud as successful, it was the volume of failed attempts that led to the eventual triumph. A lot is said about being resilient and gritty in these moments; I’d also like to add forgiveness of ourselves to that list of traits. I always wonder if we’d be talking as much about a lack of resilience or grit in today’s kids and youth if Bob Ross (or a like-minded successor) was still on television, telling those creating that it’s okay to make mistakes. Because it is. It’s important and inevitable and instructive to mess up. In those moments, forgive yourself to erase any guilt or shame that may linger, brush yourself off, and do it all over again. Can’t get it right if you don’t get back up!

What does a life ripe for creative mistake making look like for you?