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On Goofing Off and Maximizing Serendipity
New ways to work if you're not making widgets
It’s taken me a long time to give myself the permission I need to utilize serendipity. I’ve long been affected by the assembly line mentality combined with the 40-hour work week. An assembly line mentality tells me that I’m assembling widgets and that any extra time not assembling widgets is lost productivity. I should say that there are jobs that are widget-producing jobs. Usually, these are hourly employment or sales positions. But for most people in the Information Age, these jobs have been outsourced to machines. This should be something to consider. If a machine could do your job, you’ll probably operate in an assembly-line mentality. If, however, you are a knowledge worker or if there is any modicum of creativity required for your profession, then assembly-line thinking can absolutely crush any semblance of trained thought or creative output1.
The other farce is the 40-hour work week. I’ll spare you the research on how that idea of time management2 came to be. But it is ridiculous to think that everyone in every job would work a 9–5 with a sixty-minute lunch break. I think about Dave Ramsey’s advice on investing: if you wouldn’t buy that particular stock today, you shouldn’t hold on to it either. If you had complete control over your schedule, would you choose to work on a standard 40-hour work week? Some people might. Most people wouldn’t. I’m in the second batch of folks.
These two false mental models held me back for a long time when it came to stepping into a work schedule that worked for me. And I didn’t jettison them through some kind of scientific study that resulted in an altered pre-planned schedule. Honestly, it happened through goofing off. Ok, goofing off is a strong way to say it. What would actually happen would be I would be reading a book. I prefer books with footnotes. Endnotes are of the devil. When I saw one of those subscript numbers after an interesting concept or quote, I’d look to the bottom of the page or follow the link on my Kindle. I know some of you are scoffing at my use of a Kindle. I sometimes scoff too. It feels like JV reading. But here is the genius of a Kindle, footnotes, and a modest book budget: if I was interested in a book mentioned in a footnote, I could buy the book and start reading it immediately. And I do. This habit produces fantastical rabbit holes to follow. And it also leads me to often reading books and authors that are far afield from the original topic. For example, I might see an author quote embodied cognition in a book about Union with Christ (Grant Macaskill does this in his work). I followed the embodied cognition rabbit hole and read about robotics and servo-motors in the joints of humanoid machines to approximate more life-like movements rather than movement processed through a central processing unit. This felt like a type of “academic goofing off.” I say goofing off because if any of the people who were interested in my work (a congregation, an employer, a colleague) asked what I was reading about and I said, “Oh, you know, embodied cognition in androids,” they would think I a.) lost my mind and b.) wasn’t really doing what I should be doing with my time and calling. But then there were the positive long-term consequences that gradually justified that behavior.
What I Discovered
I would leave that adjacent reading and study with a vague sense of dread like I wasted time (assembly line thinking). But what would inevitably happen would be that seemingly non-related reading would months or years later be exactly what I needed to draw on. For example, embodied cognition is related to tacit knowledge (read Polanyi for more on this) and the pedagogical method crucial for apprenticeships and cohort-based learning. Apprenticeships and cohorts have gained prominence in the church and Christian education circles as a “lost” method for effectively training church leaders. All of that “wasted” knowledge was tucked away until I needed it later on. And I did need it later on. I just didn’t know it.
I’ve grown to trust my rabbit holes as priming the pump for serendipity—leaving what I think at the time are unrelated topics rumbling around in my head for future connections somewhere in the future. It has happened too often now for me to doubt its overwhelming utility for my overall calling. So I no longer leave “wasted” time with anxiety or by calling it “wasted time.”
Unconventional Work Environments
Another aspect of allowing serendipity to do its work involved unconventional work settings. For example, recently, I did two odd things during “working hours.” I was on a call with a church leader. During the call, I weeded my strawberry garden. Now, if my conversation partner could see me and not just hear me, he might think I was distracted. What was really going on was that I was focused. Getting my hands busy doing work that didn’t involve thinking (I was weeding weedy violets from around my strawberry plants) allowed my mind to focus on what he was saying. When I’m not pacing, or fiddling, or weeding, or doodling while on a phone call, I’m too focused. There is too much noise, and it crowds out the signal. I miss the overall theme. But if I can be busy with my hands, I’m much more present on a phone call.
Recently, I also cut the grass while listening to an audiobook on longevity. This is a combination of a menial task with a seemingly unrelated topic. But longevity isn’t unrelated as a theme to my core work. I’m very interested in ensuring that the leaders I coach and the seminarians I teach experience longevity in their careers. By reading an adjacent work on a broad core theme, I’m allowing my mind to mull and wander, looking for related strands and getting rid of unrelated corollaries.
Trust the Process
But it all comes back to trusting what works for me and giving myself the permission to do work in a way I can’t immediately justify other than knowing that this works for me. Serendipity is much like sleep. You can’t make yourself sleep (as those with insomnia know all about). All you can do is prepare yourself for sleep—close your eyes in a dark room while lying down—and eventually, sleep comes. I’ve slept enough to trust the process, even though a supine position in darkness might not immediately look like the best way to induce an altered brain state that results in restorative health.
So, in the end, if you’re struggling with productivity3, the problem might not be to focus more on being productive. The answer might be to commit to practices that might look like “goofing off” to some but are, in reality, exactly what you need to do to induce that most powerful of practices: serendipity.
I hate this word.
I also hate this word.
I probably hate this word the most.