The Seesaw of Serendipity and Drive

Confused. What better way to feel on a Friday after work. Coming home from work I didn’t know what to do. So, I started changing clothes for the gym. Next stop, the gym and then…

A sort of emptiness started filling my mind. I had no obligations that evening. I had achieved all I wanted to for the week. Larger recent life events: got my undergraduate degree, got a great job, and began work towards new dreams outside of work. My life is going in a direction I want. Yet the empty feeling persisted.

I have been known to get busy and “productive” to defer that empty feeling. That confusing yet strong feeling that I have diagnosed as PES (Post-achievement Emptiness Syndrome): the inability to engage in activities just for fun, often the result of focusing excessively on achievements. I didn’t want to work, but I had forgotten how to play.

So I started watching Youtube videos about business and fitness. After a few videos I thought about a trip I had a few months before…

My first trip to Spain reminded me of a forgotten attitude. The child’s attitude. That mindset of wandering with curiosity and embracing whatever happens. Travel and other non-achievement oriented activities are the perfect way to rekindle this mindset. I don’t mean traveling with a list of the “must sees” or packing each day full of adventures. In fact, I took the exact opposite approach on a recent trip and had one of the most memorable experiences of my life.

We were going to Spain after graduation. But I was poorly “prepared” for the trip. I knew about 15 Spanish words (10 of which were numbers), I hadn’t researched the “must sees”, and hadn’t looked into hotels (we actually had only booked 4 nights of the 14 day trip). A sense uneasiness set in as I boarded the plane with so much uncertainty ahead.

Upon arrival in Spain it was hard to get into that child like mindset.* When you have deadlines, meetings, and classes 7 days a week it can be hard to adjust to having zero commitments. It worried me slightly that we didn’t have all our hotels booked and that we had no planned activities, would this trip be a waste?

On a train out of Madrid we looked over cities to visit and impulsively chose Sevilla, which turned out to be the highlight of the trip. Sevilla has the variety of options typical of a city, while maintaining the hospitality and warmth of a small town. Also, it turned out the hotel had its own inexpensive bike rental service. And the city happened to have recently finished a tourist bike path. And the city is known for its amazing food. I didn’t even know this city existed until 2 days before we got there.

So where does this musing about Spain and my eccentric Friday evening leave us? The recognition of 2 forces that must be balanced in life; drive and serendipity. We need drive to dream and work towards future achievements. However, we also need serendipity to wander, play, and embrace whatever experiences lie before us. The only problem is that in the modern world, drive is overemphasized to the point that we forget serendipity. Think about mainstream Western schooling. For 8 hours a day, enthusiastic children are forced to sit through a series of regimented learning activities. Even P.E., art, and music are highly structured classes. After school, many kids are ushered into sports practices. Finally, at night they do homework. Lunch and recess only offer a brief time to play for most kids. A similar pattern follows in most jobs. Now this is not say our jobs and school system are completely broken, but they need to allow for more wandering and play.

 Serendipity is not just important, it is necessary. This force helps us:

  1. Develop a childlike curiosity for the world, crucial to creativity and learning.
  2. Be inspired and infuse passion into life.
  3. Prevent burnout due to being in drive mode for too long.

So just play. Stare at the sky. Take a walk. Forget having a reason or purpose. Let the waves of life wash over you like when you were a kid at the beach.

*Note this is a repost from August 2015 from a previous blog I ran.

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Recommended Further Reading:

Leo Baubata’s The Place Where You Are

Charlie Hoehn’s Preventing Burnout: A Cautionary Tale

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