In his poem To A Mouse, the Scottish bard Robert Burns wrote that the “best-laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men gang aft agley” – our best-laid plans often go awry.
Burns’ timeless poem was written in 1785 and tells the story of a farmer attempting to comfort a mouse after he turns over its nest while ploughing his field. The incident gives the farmer to pause for thought: the mouse probably spent a lot of time building its nest ahead of winter. And yet, one cruel and quick twist of fate ruined the nest completely.
Reflecting on the creature’s misfortune, the farmer feels sorry for the mouse, but comes to feel sorrier for mankind. After all, mice live in the present moment while humans look anxiously to the future and regretfully at the past.
Overall, the mouse has the easier life, even when disaster strikes.
The Danish physicist Niels Bohr once said, “Predictions are very difficult especially when they are about the future.” The quote reminds me of a joke my old economics professor would tell, describing the task of trying to accurately predict future markets, “If all the economists in the world were laid end-to-end, they would never reach a conclusion.”
When I was in school, I remember being told about the importance of choosing a good career. By the time I had reached high school, I had no idea what I wanted to do. It had been suggested to me that I could become an accountant and, since the two or three accountants that I knew of drove fancy cars, it seemed like a great idea at the time. And so, I studied Accounting & Finance…for one year.
It really wasn’t for me. I found it dreadfully dull (apologies to any accountants reading), and I subsequently enrolled in journalism, which I thoroughly enjoyed. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I declined to study my Honours year.
When my professor asked for an explanation, I replied that I had no need for an Honours degree. After all, I would be spending the next 30 years in a newsroom writing stories – what use was another year’s study?
With a wry smile on his face, he said, “Don’t be so sure. You never know what life has in store for you.” I heartily dismissed the learned professor’s warning – what did he know, anyway? I was 22 and old enough to know everything.
Fast forward 13 years, and here I am in Malaysia exploring all sorts of opportunities, in the process of becoming a psychotherapist, and a co-author of a book on mindfulness and emotions. How did I get here? What magical plan had sent me down this road?
In truth, there was no plan. At least, nothing concrete. In the words of J.K. Rowling, who described her immensely successful writing career, “I winged it”. Interestingly, there’s a sprinkling of guilt that comes with finding yourself in a fortunate and blessed position that hasn’t come from meticulous planning.
It isn’t that there’s no planning and it’s certainly not the case that there’s been no hard work. Simply put, opportunities have opened up for me over the years and I’ve tried to be quick to grasp them. Then again, there have been a lot of opportunities created, with more than a few instances of indecision along the way.
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I can imagine that some people (I’m looking at you, accountants and engineers) will find the idea of going with the flow to be an unnecessarily risky approach. However, Stanford Professor John Krumboltz would beg to differ. The renowned career theorist believes that indecision can be a powerful and positive force, and he created a theory around the idea called planned happenstance.
Like the wise farmer in ‘To A Mouse’, Krumboltz realised that we have limited control over life’s events, and that social and environmental factors can often combine to throw obstacles in our way. As the famous meme for success shows, progress is rarely a straight line but often comes in the form of a tangled mess that sends us in all directions before we reach a desired outcome.
To be clear, planned happenstance (the clue is in the title) doesn’t advocate a lack of planning – of course, we have to plan our days, weeks and months to a degree. What it does encourage is that we should avoid putting all our energies and expectations into a single, direct plan of action.
Krumboltz’s theory is one that calls on career counsellors and other influencers to help people to deal positively with life’s unexpected turns. According to the career theorist, if we develop four key attitudes, great opportunities can open themselves up to us if we can find the courage to be less rigid in our expectations and a little more open. These four attitudes are:
- A curiosity to explore new learning opportunities
- The resilience to deal with setbacks and the perseverance to carry on
- Being agile to deal with unexpected circumstances and events
- Optimism to take advantage of new situations and avenues that our situation opens up
The unforeseen twists and turns of life can often lead us in completely unexpected directions. But, as writer Lois McMaster Bujold so aptly puts it, “It’s a bizarre but wonderful feeling, to arrive dead centre of a target you didn’t even know you were aiming for.”
If we can cultivate the four attitudes espoused by Krumboltz’s theory, he believes that we put ourselves in a much better position to transform chance events into opportunities. It’s when we become too rigid and fixated on planning that we invariably leave ourselves unprepared for the unexpected.
If we look to the world of business, some of the biggest companies started off by chance events or unexpected results. According to YouTube co-founder, Jawed Karim, the inspiration for the website followed an embarrassing incident for the singer Janet Jackson during the 2004 Super Bowl half-time show.
Karim couldn’t find video clips of the incident online, and this, he says, sparked the idea for a video-sharing website, which netted 15 billion USD in advertising revenue in 2019.
In 1898, the Kellogg brothers, Will and John, wanted to make a granola bar, but accidentally left the oats cooking on the stove for too long. This produced a hard and stale foodstuff which, when baked in the oven, produced the beginnings of the corn flakes cereal that are now a staple feature on supermarket shelves.
Suffering from regular headaches, in 1886 a pharmacist by the name of John Pemberton attempted to make his own remedy as nothing else seemed to work. He mixed together coca leaves and coca nuts, but the mixture became something else when an assistant accidentally added carbonated water to the recipe. Thus began the journey of one of today’s most recognisable brands, Coca-Cola.
As noted by the London School of Economics (LSE), ‘Planned happenstance suggests that even if you don’t know exactly where your actions will lead, just by being active and doing the right kinds of things, great things can and will happen’.
When we tie ourselves to a rigid plan, not only might that plan not work out, but we can also rob ourselves of other valuable opportunities just because we’ve set our sights on a particular road, which is sometimes chosen for us rather than by us.
Particularly in this era of evolving job markets and the rapid speed of technological advancement, it is more important than ever to be open, resilient, agile and optimistic about the numerous possibilities that are available to us if we can find the courage to explore.
As the pioneer of self-improvement Dale Carnegie implored:
Take a chance! All life is a chance. The man who goes farthest is generally the one who is willing to do and dare.
I wonder what he would have made of the world we live in today, with all the means of communication, innovation and creativity at our fingertips.
I suppose even a visionary like Carnegie would have been astounded at how much is open to us, and doubtless, he would have been surprised by how many of us haven’t opened up to exploring the wide range of options open to us. Imagine the chance encounters, the possible collaborations, the accidental successes, if we would only widen our perspective just a little…
One accidental success here in Malaysia began with some passive browsing online. Renee Ang – a businesswoman and student from Klang – was looking through YouTube and Instagram when she stumbled upon the Bullet Journal trend, a productivity system developed by Ryder Carroll, an American digital product designer.
Ryder’s viral success was also inadvertent, as he set about creating a system initially designed to help him overcome his learning disabilities. The system, according to its inventor, is to reduce complexity and provide clarity.
After researching the system for herself, Renee – who has an impressive background in PR and marketing – decided to bring the concept to Malaysia, creating a Dotted Journal through one of her two businesses, CreatiVtree, based in Shah Alam.
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As she explained, “Journaling is becoming a growing trend here as well as overseas, and so I thought we should have something like it here in Malaysia. It’s a personal way of organising your thoughts and emotions, your plans and events in a way that texting by phone or email doesn’t provide.
“All the pages are dotted – there are no lines at all, because lines are rigid and can be unhelpful if you want to draw or create something. If you give the book to different people, they will create in different ways whether it’s drawing, writing, or creating charts and graphs, and the dotted journal caters to any style.”
Commenting on her own inclination to follow the planned happenstance approach, Renee described how she became a beauty consultant for one year at the age of 17 before pursuing her studies at university. “With a Diploma in Mass Communication, I interned in a speaker management company in Bangsar and was offered a full-time post but had to give it up to resume my studies.
“Upon completion of my degree from the University of West England, I was wondering whether to go back to the speaker management company or seek a new working environment. In the end, I decided to work for a public relations company in Subang, and subsequently ventured into the event industry with another company in KL.”
Currently, Renee runs two businesses while juggling a Master’s degree in counselling, and believes that young people especially can carve out a fulfilling and successful life if they are able to explore beyond the boundaries of traditional career paths.
She admits that this isn’t always easy within the Asian culture, and offers some advice to anyone who wants to pursue their passion, “Don’t conform so much to the norm, and try to follow what your heart tells you. Of course, you still have to plan, let’s be realistic, we can’t just wait around for things to happen.
So have a framework, but be flexible within that framework. If good things come along, great; if bad things happen, learn from the experience in a way that will help to bring about better opportunities in future.”
Sandy is a freelance writer based in Malaysia, and previously enjoyed 10 years as a journalist and broadcaster in the UK. He has been fortunate to gain valuable insights into what makes us tick, which has deepened his interests in leadership, emotions, mindfulness, and human behaviour.