Careful forethought vs. serendipity
Equivocal insights from photography.
This past weekend our photographer was compelled to go out and take pictures. It was not a coerced or desperate situation, but he needed images that he didn’t have, the Sun was out, so he felt it necessary to finish off a couple of rolls of film. Now, it’s a standard assignment for students in photography courses to capture a certain minimum number of images (in the old days, use a certain amount of film) in a limited time. In part this is a response to the standard student technique of procrastination, but also it answers something in the human creative psyche: thinking too hard can lead to nothing useful, while not consciously planning at all can come up with good things sometimes. And if you’re required to use, say, two rolls of 36 shots each this afternoon, it’s probable that you’ll come up with something.
Contrast this with a photographer Bill Landon, who (we say without much exaggeration) would go hiking in the Washington Cascades mountains, see a picture he wanted, then go home and build the camera to capture it. These are probably the extremes: in one case, not having more than a vague idea of what might happen, and trying to be responsive to anything that came up with the tools at hand; in the other, having a very definite end in view, and bending all efforts and much skill to attain the specific outcome.
It would be neat and pat and easily passed around on social media if we could conclusively say that either method was superior. No doubt the first would be more popular on Facebook, the second on LinkedIn. The Romantic tendency (to use the literary, rather than the popular, meaning of the word) prefers feelings and the inexplicable workings of the heart; the Enlightenment enlists the rational order against the chaos of superstition and fear. But we’ve seen both fail, and both succeed.
Our astronomer recalls many promising calculations that, after much disciplined work, were uninteresting (0 = 0) or wrong. On the other hand, a chance remark (too mathematical to go into here) led to an illuminating paper. But his major observational effort took place systematically over years, while other apparently brilliant ideas led nowhere. Well, we’re reminded of a Picasso quote: “If you know exactly what you’re going to do, what is the point of doing it?” (A nice quote for scientists and artists, not so good for engineers or airline pilots.) Neither motivation is guaranteed success, or failure.
But we will point out the unexpected, unintended influence of by-events. While you are proceeding on your main plan, other things will pop up. And the tiny reinforcement of Fiji, the gathering of a few refugee fencers, a chance remark to a student can lead to more important effects than what you think is your main effort. While you perform your carefull and watchful details, have the humility to concede that your importance may come from other actions.