Chance is a lovely thing.
There’s nothing quite like truly random exploring. As a student, I used to regularly find all kinds of gems not by just looking in the places where the books I wanted were meant to be, but by roaming, pouring through the overflow shelves, and the trolleys of books waiting to be re-shelved. It sometimes felt like living out one of the more benign scenes of Umberto Eco‘s The Name of the Rose, searching the great labyrinthine library for treasures of scholarship, clues to enlightenment.
Sometimes these were simply great reads in their own right. One day at the Mitchell Library in Sydney, I picked up one a novel by the great Egyptian Nobel award-winning writer Naguib Mahfouz‘s from a trolley. I had only recently heard of him and this had piqued my curiosity. It was the hauntingly powerful cautionary tale, Respected Sir, quite appropriate at the time, being at the beginning of my new life. I sat down with it and didn’t get up again until I’d finished it. Being a slow reader, this is a very unusual experience indeed.
More often than not the random finds I made would speak directly to tangents of my research, and if they didn’t I might find a way for them to become relevant. Of course it helped that my research has always been interdisciplinary, but in a way I think this grew out of my way of sourcing knowledge from multiple disciplines.
I particularly enjoy going into the collections of bound academic journals and just sitting down with a large pile of volumes. Even if I don’t t find works of immediate relevance, I always find great inspiration just seeing the many different avenues being pursued by other scholars. Most of all I usually felt a reconnection with the beauty of scholarship and learning for its own sake.
It’s virtually impossible to search like this online. Our searching, whether it’s for research, jobs, or anything else is rarely random, always directed or at least prompted and pre-sorted by Google bots, or whatever they are. Chance is reduced to algorithms. The increasingly complex search engines make this even harder and the results they deliver are based on calculations based on our past interest which invariably limits us to the familiar. This can be very useful but not when we want to invite the magic of chance into our life and our work.
Of course, chance will always find us whether we like it or not. But it’s more fun to play with it, to let go of the illusion of control and just open up to the gifts that are waiting for us to venture off the old ‘8 track’, whether it’s with books, or people, or just taking a walk down a new street. Maybe it’s starting a conversation with a new neighbour, or a friendly looking stranger. There are all kinds of ways of working with chance, they just require a spirit of curiosity and an open heart. You might even find, as I have, that chance brings the most special things into our life, the blessings that make our lives what they are.