Words and pics by Anthony Topham, aged 45 ¹/₄
UK /ˈhæp.ən.stɑːns/ US /ˈhæp.ən.stæns/
chance or a chance situation, especially one producing a good result:
By (a strange) happenstance they were both in Paris at the same time.
If man is five: How a metaphorical smack in the face woke my creativity up.
Summer 1989. A campsite somewhere in the Austrian Alps.
I am 14 years old and on a camping trip with my family and the families of my aunts and uncles. There are 15 of us travelling in a minibus and camping together. One evening, bored and probably irritated at having to spend so much time with family and younger cousins; I isolate myself in the van whilst everyone is playing board games or something.
The sun is going down, rain is falling, and distant lights are appearing on the mountain sides all around.
On my yellow Sony Walkman, I’m listening to a bootleg cassette of INXS (who I still love) that my dad brought back from Saudi.
And the batteries run out.
I’m still not ready to go back.
I switch on the car radio, turning the tuning dial…passing radio stations in the same way you pass train stations on a speeding train. And then…
…a sound that smacks me in the face and tells me to stop.
I delicately move the tuner fractions of a millimetre to get the clearest possible reception from out of space or wherever this guitar sound is coming from. A guitar sound so heavy and dirty. A song like nothing I’ve ever heard before, that sounds like the devil’s music (as all good rock should). Slack jawed, I listen to the ‘singer’ scream over and over again:
“If man is five,
And the Devil is six,
Then God is seven”
Anarchic, angry, beautiful and, at that moment, no one else’s but mine.
That song, right then, in a moment of wonderous happenstance, would not only be defining in terms of my music tastes, but also in the way I approached curiosity and creativity.
That song was “This monkey’s gone to heaven” By The Pixies.
Algorithms: a curated cage we need to escape.
God. I. Am. So. Bored.
I’m not bored because I have nothing to do. I’m bored because everything is the same. Our horizons have shrunk during lockdown, I don’t know about you but that really affects my ability to be creative and think big.
Curiosity and creativity thrive on unexpected things coming together, random interactions, something being where it shouldn’t be. Or something so out of your usual tastes and choices that you like, and you don’t know why.
We spend so much of our lives viewing the world in portrait when, really, we should be viewing in landscape.
Everything is so painfully curated nowadays! I have everything I like at the touch of a button. But it’s like a gilded cage. I thrive on observing human interaction. I’m influenced through osmosis by the things and people around me. In the absence of outside influence, curiosity has to raise its game to look for different ideas, different input, different opinions.
When your job requires you to have ideas and insight. It’s kind of a thing.
The challenge is, in this digital world, the algorithms are constantly trying to shortcut our thought process (and enhance advertising revenue) by calculating what they think you might like. Netflix tells us “Because you watched…”, Amazon “Other people who bought this also bought…” News Apps put stories to the top of our feed, based on previous reading. Even when you think you are listening to music at random on Spotify, the algorithms are making choices based on what you have previously listened to or skipped over. And social media creates an echo chamber of our own opinion, so we begin to believe that everyone is the same as us.
We are railroaded into a cul-de-sac of our own preferences. The digital suburbs.
Smash the matrix: Rediscovering joy and magic in the everyday
I need new stimulus. I need things I don’t like. I need things I hate. I need things that are different…things that make me feel and rouse me from the dull comfort of this algorithmic fug. These disruptions, are fundamental to being creative and thinking differently. They give me the stimulus to flex and create new neural pathways, to make connections never put together before. After all, diverse thinking challenges us in new ways and creates brilliant ideas, sometimes helping us find the sublime in the ridiculous
This isn’t a hipster call to arms for everything analogue. This is about finding ways to move beyond the limiting belief of our own tastes.
If we can’t change the world around us that we can see, we have to change the way we see the world around us.
These are just a few practical tips that I use to shake up my thought patterns, widen my influences and re-invigorate my thinking or ideas.
DO TOUCH THAT DIAL – Spin the tuner on your radio. Listen to whatever radio station it lands on. Even if you don’t understand the language or hate the first song. Listen for at least an hour. If you have an analogue radio, even better go long-wave. You will be amazed at what’s out there. This is about relinquishing control of your aural landscape. If you want to check out some REALLY eclectic internet radio, try NTS.
THE POWER OF PRINT – Rather than reading your news from the internet, buy a newspaper. After you have read the articles that immediately leap out, read the ones in between, or the columns you wouldn’t usually. Read the obituaries. You will be surprised at what piques your interest when it is allowed to explore what it wants rather than be corralled down a machine learned furrow. Or go to the newsagents, close your eyes and buy the first magazine you touch. And if you read the paper, buy a different one and challenge yourself. Buy one that is diametrically opposed to your own views. You don’t have to agree, but you do have to think why you don’t.
I YEARN FOR THE PAGE TURN – Again, this is about reading something we wouldn’t usually. Close your eyes and pick a book off your shelf at random. Read one of your kid’s books. Pick up a book from the shop without even looking at the cover (and when you are done, if you don’t like it, give it to charity). And if you want to take it a step further, just pick a random page. What does it say to you? What do you think is happening? There is a particular technique to this. If you are interested, you can find out more here.
MINISTRY OF SILLY WALKS – During lockdown many of us are really bored walking/driving/cycling the same routes for our state sanctioned exercise. But there are ways of turning this time into something creative. Walk in the opposite direction or on the other side of the road. Walk at a different time of day. Set yourself little challenges such as making a mental note of everything you see of the same colour or look out for naturally occurring faces in the manmade and natural world around you. This is about changing the way in which you interact with the world around you. If you like this check out “How to be an explorer of the world” by Keri Smith. Similarly, a not-for-profit organisation called Street Wisdom have some great free tools that I bloody love.
THE PEN IS MIGHTIER! – Try and write first drafts in pen or pencil and paper. Notice how it changes your thought process or your relationship with the idea or concept. What happens when you then type it up? I always hand write first drafts (sometime even second drafts). I find my mind works more freely and quickly when Word isn’t constantly trying to format or slap me on the wrists for spelling with red lines. Write an email on paper first. How does that change your perception of the messaging?
GO TO GROUND – Do you remember when you used to lie on the carpet as a kid and colour in? Getting closer to the paper. Try working somewhere other than your desk. Sit on the floor, sit on a windowsill, sit in a different room. Stand up instead. If your back, knees etc will take it, lie down. This is another way of literally changing your world view. How does it change the relationship or thought process with the piece of work you are doing? See what happens when you combine #5 and #1.
A final gift…click here for a playlist I've created on Spotify for some things you might like and some you will definitely hate, but hopefully never heard before.
It’s time to open the cage doors and create those opportunities for happenstance.
Out there, somewhere, there is another monkey going to heaven.
Director of Content, FizzPopBANG