I believe that everyone has a “chaos field”: something that throws interesting and sometimes totally random things your way. People with strong chaos fields tend to have neat (and not-so-neat) things happen to them, often from out of the blue. This can be a boon or a curse, depending on which way the dice are rolling.
I have a fairly strong chaos field, as you may have noticed – unusual things frequently happen to me (read my bio if you need proof), and I’ve accomplished some rather surprising things. (Mind you, I do have a few friends with stronger chaos fields, including my ex. My recommendation? Never set up house with another Lord of Chaos; you really never do know what will happen next. It’s fun sometimes, but also very stressful!) People have occasionally asked me how things manage to “just happen” to me, and I’ve never had a really good answer.
I just read a really interesting book, The Click Moment: Seizing Opportunity in an Unpredictable World by Frans Johansson. The author has three main points: (1) with a few exceptions (chess, tennis), randomness plays a great role in any success; (2) the triggers for success are “click moments” – moments of insights that nobody else has; and (3) success hinges on placing many small bets based on “click moments” and then following up the ones that look like they’re succeeding. The author spends about 1/3 of the book on establishing randomness as a major success factor, then offers suggestions for how to harness the forces of randomness to produce more inspirations, and to make the most of the inspirations you do have.
I really recommend this book – it’s the most intriguing book I’ve read in years, and its implications are far-reaching. If I had to compare it to another book, it would be The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell.
Anyway, what struck me about the book can be summed up in this phrase:
This book argues that successful people and organizations increasingly invite randomness and take advantage of it when it presents itself.
Not unlike another quote from one of my favorite books, Taran Wanderer by Lloyd Alexander:
“And yet,” Taran said, as he swung astride Melynlas, “alas, you never told me the secret of your luck.”
“Secret?” replied Llonio. “Have you not already guessed? Why, my luck’s no greater than yours or any man’s. You need only sharpen your eyes to see your luck when it comes, and sharpen your wits to use what falls into your hands.”
One of the things the book suggests is that “lucky” people are simply more observant people who notice and exploit the opportunities that life randomly throws their way. The author cites a study in which people who identified themselves as lucky and people who identified as unlucky were both given a task: to count the number of illustrations in a newspaper. The lucky people got it right within seconds; the unlucky people took several minutes and were wrong as often as not. Why? Inside the newspaper, on the second page, was a two-inch high box that read, “Stop counting. There are 43 illustrations in the newspaper.” The “lucky” people noticed the box and stopped reading; the “unlucky” people did not.
Another thing the book suggests is that more interesting things are likely to happen on the boundaries between established fields:
…each of us has our best chance of creating click moments by searching for inspiration in fields, industries, and cultures that are different from our own—something I call intersectional thinking.
Put together, this suggests that getting off the beaten path (yours or others’) and keeping your eyes open, then following up on the opportunities you notice, is the key to success (or at least a more interesting life). As an interesting example, here is the story of how I came to be the cover model for a Thai travel magazine, dressed only in body paint:
In my second week in Thailand, I went bar-hopping through Bangkok with the cousin of a friend of a former boss, to see what there was to see. In the course of touring all the backpacker’s hotspots that evening, we walked by a place called Dream Boys, which she pointed out as “the best men’s sex show in Bangkok”. This made me curious, so I went there the next evening to see what there was to see.
Among the various shows was a bunch of guys dressed in body paint: a hawk, a moth, a scorpion – under UV light. This also piqued my curiosity, since I had worn body paint at Burning Man, so I wanted to meet the body painter. However, he probably didn’t speak English, and I didn’t speak Thai, so the only thing I could think of was to rent a boy from the bar, make friends with the boy, and get him to introduce me to the body painter. (Renting a “call boy” for the evening was, of course, a distinctly unconventional way to get an introduction, especially since I wasn’t planning to have sex with him, but the best I could think of.) However, I didn’t have the slightest understanding of how to rent a boy from the bar, so the next day I called up the cousin of a friend of my former boss, explained the situation, and asked her how one took a boy out of the bar.
She said, “Oh, it’s easy, this is how you do it,” but added, “…but the best body painter in Bangkok is an Australian expat, and he’s going to be at my party on Friday – come to my party and I’ll introduce you.”
So I went to the party and met the body painter, and asked if he’d paint me. I sent him my Burning Man body paint photos, and to my surprise he agreed to paint me just for the fun of it, in exchange for the cost of the paints! (His regular rate was $5000/day!)
So I coughed up some money, we hired a photographer, he painted me, and we did a photo shoot. The photos were fantastic. I was thrilled.
I then moved on to other adventures, but two weeks later, I was in a tourist shop in Thailand, and my phone rang. It was the body painter, and he was wondering: would I be interested in having my photo on the front cover of Farang Magazine? His buddy was looking for a cover photo, and this would be great.
I said “YES!!”, and the rest is history.
This sounds wildly improbable (and it is!), but if you break it down, it’s entirely the result of three things: (1) going places I usually wouldn’t go, (2) following up on interesting things, even if doing so required unconventional methods, and (3) meeting and capitalizing on finding the right people.
Put another way, to some degree this is luck, but luck was heavily influenced by exploring in unconventional ways.
There is a fourth factor, which is that a well-tended chaos field tends to amplify itself. That is to say, if your life is full of interesting stories, more people will hear about you, which leads to more introductions to interesting people and opportunities, which leads to more options for adventure. It’s unlikely that the body painter would have painted me if I hadn’t had cool body paint photos from Burning Man to show him; it’s unlikely that the cousin-of-a-friend-of-my-boss would have introduced me to him if I hadn’t piqued her interest earlier in the evening by eating a roasted scorpion. If you lead an interesting life, people will bring you more interesting things. It’s the way of the world.
Lately my chaos field has been fairly inactive, except in the small matter of the wedding dress getting into a museum. Maybe it’s time to resurface it, and go off in search of adventure?