A Year of Manufacturing Serendipity: Part One
Hello there :)
Welcome to issue twenty six of Manufacturing Serendipity friends!
I’ve now been sending out this fortnightly newsletter for close to year, and to mark the occasion I figured I really ought to do some sort of retrospective thinger. I figured I’d go back and re-read all the newsletters I’ve sent out this year and pick out the best bits. However, as you might have guessed from the post title that would have made for a hellishly long email, and so I’m sending part one now, and part two will be sent out in a fortnight.
But before we get on to the best bits, what’s happened as a result of me collating a years’ worth of loosely connected stuff? Grab yourself a suitable beverage my loves, and let’s find out…
What’s changed as a result of you writing this newsletter? Have you manufactured more serendipity?
I first wrote about the notion of manufacturing serendipity back in 2019. I wondered if it might be possible to manufacture serendipity, i.e. to create conditions where I’m led to make interesting discoveries.
Might paying attention to what I’m consuming, where I’m going, and how I’m spending my time cause me to see the world a little differently? Might it change how I think? Could it lead to new interests, new friendships, new opportunities?
I recognise this sounds more than a little grandiose. Particularly when you consider all I’ve really been doing for the past year is paying attention to what I’m paying attention to.
It’s an idea I shamelessly stole from Austin Kleon.
In his book: Keep Going, chapter five is titled: The Ordinary + Extra Attention = The Extraordinary. Here, he explores the idea of how what we pay attention to shapes our experiences, and indeed our lives.
He included this quote:
For anyone trying to discern what to do with their life:
PAY ATTENTION TO WHAT YOU PAY ATTENTION TO.
That’s pretty much all the info you need
~Amy Krouse Rosenthal
And this one too:
To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.
Paying attention to what you’re paying attention to sounds easy, right?
But actually it’s not. We all need to work to pay our bills, and we have many and varied responsibilities. We get stuck in ruts, we get tired to our bones, we’re not quite sure if we’re waving or drowning, and finding the energy to pay attention to what we’re paying attention to amongst all those things is a pretty big ask.
Writing this newsletter has made it easier for me to pay attention to what I’m paying attention to, because I’m recording and effectively reviewing it every fortnight. The action of continually writing this newsletter has forced me to be more disciplined about this stuff. It’s forced me to think more deeply about what I’m consuming and how it makes me feel.
As a result, perhaps, I now see paying attention to what you’re paying attention to as a discrete two-step process.
First up, I pay attention. This bit comes pretty easily to me, although I didn’t realise that was the case until this year, when I attended Kirsty Hulse’s Confidence Now course. One of the exercises she had us do as part of this course, was to email a bunch of people and ask this question: "What are my unique gifts, skills, or talents?"
Here’s a excerpt from my friend Alex’s response to the question:
“Your ability to read and digest content properly. This is I think an (increasingly) unique skill. As attention spans go down and content increases you've always impressed me because you read at your own pace and properly take on the messages, meanings and connections from content big and small. Other people rush to get to the root of a piece of content without taking the time required to understand it, but I think you do. Which is cool.”
Until Alex sent me this, I didn’t realise this was something that I did.
In fairness I don’t always do this with everything I read - I’m as guilty as the next person of scanning stuff rather than reading it properly. However, my default mode is to read deeply. To try to take the time to properly consider whatever it is I’m consuming. What does it really mean? How does this connect to other stuff I’ve read? What’s missing here? What’s not been said? What were the intentions of whoever wrote or made this thing?
So that’s the paying attention bit.
But what about paying attention to what I’m paying attention to?
Here I think about whether or not I’m glad I paid attention to that thing.
Did it teach me something I didn’t know before? Did it allow me to see something in a new way? Did it bring me joy? Was it interesting, or important, or brilliant? Was it worth the time I spent on it?
I’ve found that consuming stuff that I find interesting, important, or brilliant makes me feel good. Conversely, when I consume stuff that isn’t any of those things it makes me feel not bad exactly, but definitely unsatisfied.
I’ve come to the realisation that things which I find interesting, important, or brilliant act like fuel. They give me energy. Things which I don’t find to be interesting, important, or brilliant do the opposite - they sap my energy.
At some level I already suspected this might be the case. But this year of writing has allowed me to fully realise the extent to which what I’m consuming impacts not just how I feel, but how much energy I have.
Obviously we’re all different, and we consume content (in all its forms) for different reasons. The things I find interesting, important, or brilliant, you might find unspeakably dull. That’s cool. But I’d encourage you to think about how what you’re consuming makes you feel. Is it making you feel good? Or not so good? Is it giving you energy? Or sapping it? What might happen if you consumed more stuff that made you feel good?*
*For clarity, I’m not suggesting we should simply ignore the many terrible things happening in the world and just consume content that makes us feel good. I am, however advocating for balance.
As usual, Substack’s squawking about this email nearing the length limit. Next time I’ll talk about some of the unexpectedly delightful things which have happened as a result of me writing this newsletter.
My Favourite Finds of the Year (Part One)
Advice, Articles & Interviews
Neil Gaiman’s advice to aspiring artists is wonderful regardless of whether you consider yourself an artist or not.
Paul Ford’s closing keynote at the 2012 MFA Interaction Design Festival, Ten Timeframes… “If we are going to ask people, in the form of our products, in the form of the things we make, to spend their heartbeats—if we are going to ask them to spend their heartbeats on us, on our ideas, how can we be sure, far more sure than we are now, that they spend those heartbeats wisely?”
Sunscreen - the widely misattributed commencement address that was never a commencement address at all… “Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it’s worth.”
Austin Kleon advocates the use of the Vampire Test as a means to determine who to let into your life.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk on the Danger of a Single Story.
How can we talk about privilege without causing people to react like vampires being fed a garlic tart at high noon? The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is by John Scalzi, plus his follow ups posts here and here are great.
How we compare ourselves and our life choices to those of our friends by Tim Kreider: “We’re all anxiously sizing up how everyone else’s decisions have worked out to reassure ourselves that our own are vindicated — that we are, in some sense, winning… it’s easy to overlook that hidden beneath all this smug certainty is a poignant insecurity, and the naked 3 A.M. terror of regret.”
Patricia Lockwood’s 2018 essay - How do we write now? Originally given as a lecture at the Poetry Winter Workshop, in this essay Lockwood talks about how excessive exposure to the internet might impact our creativity.
Michaela Coel in conversation with Jeremy O. Harris on turning down a million dollars from Netflix in order to retain autonomy, creating difficult art, and freaking out Jordan Peele.
Kyle Chayka explores the dystopian rise of ambient TV. It occurs to me that ambient TV is remarkably similar to soma, the soothing, happiness-producing drug which is used to control the masses in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.
Jeannette Winterson on Why We Read.
The Myth of the Male Bumbler by Lili Loofbourow.
Adrian Brandon’s series of incomplete portraits comprises of partially filled-in depictions of Black people who have been murdered by the police. Each portrait remains incomplete as Brandon colours for one minute for each year of the subject’s life.
Patrick Cabral’s Papercut Dinagyang Masks. Comprised of two pieces - Lupa and Langit, this work explores the duality of heaven and earth, good and evil, calm and chaos.
Ayham Jabr - Damascus Under Siege. Syrian artist Jabr transports us to the fringes of a surrealist reality, stuck between two wars: the Syrian and the Martian.
Bisa Butler’s incredible quilted artworks. Butler combines portraiture and quilting, to accord dignity and respect to her Black subjects—those she discovers in historical photographs, as well as members of her own family. “I’m trying to give my subjects back an identity that’s been lost…”
GPT-3 Generated Pickup Lines by Janelle Shane. You had me at: “I will briefly summarize the plot of Back to the Future II for you”.
Thanks to Neil Gaiman I learned that in the US they pronounce “buoy” with two syllables rather than one (in the US it’s pronounced “boo-ey”, in the UK it’s pronounced “boy”); and how Sondheim handled the UK / US difference in his lyrics.
Science, Nature & various Studies
Eat Lasers Carina Nebula! How astronomers use giant lasers to improve the resolution of their telescopes.
It may not feel like it, but apparently, The Earth has been Spinning Faster Lately.
10 Cool Things We Learned About Pluto: Pluto has a “heart” and it drives activity on the planet.
“An intense situation that is either going to lead to mating or to conflict.” Why we’re suffering from Zoom fatigue.
For women in economics, the hostility is out in the open… Various studies have found that the field of economics is plagued by a problem of gender bias. This one looks at the types of questions posed at seminars.
Scientists have discovered that some sea slugs are able to chop off their own heads and grow new bodies, and there’s also another amazing sea slug called the leaf sheep, which has the ability to photosynthesise.
Giant Flying Murder Heads. One of the largest creatures to ever take flight was Quetzalcoatlus northropi of the Cretaceous period, a pterosaur with a 33 foot wingspan that stood as tall as a giraffe. I also learned that to call a pterosaur a dinosaur is an error of the same order of magnitude as saying that humans are marsupials.
Tweets & Web thingers
Merriam-Webster’s Time Traveller - see the words which first appeared in print in any given year. What I think is perhaps most interesting are the concepts which we likely consider to be relatively recent, but actually aren’t; examples include - technophobia: 1947, machine language: 1947, artificial intelligence: 1955, and internet of things: 2001.
If you like choose-your-own-adventure AND escape rooms, then this for you.
Sweet dreams, *snip snip*.
This glorious twitter thread from the guy who trolled the Metro’s Rush Hour Crush, and Good Deed Feed for years.
The Science Museum have created a thinger using their digitised collection. It only displays web pages with zero views, so you’ll be the very first person to view the object from their collection online.
Pat is my spirit animal: “If I only knew where I was to die, I’d never go near the place.”
Wikipedia’s delightful page on the history of Spite Houses.
Fiction & Poetry
Love & Other Thought Experiments by Sophie Ward, a novel which explores the nature of our reality, and our capacity to know and understand it.
Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler, a near future dystopia told via the journal entries of its protagonist, a fifteen-year-old girl named Lauren.
Maria Dahvana Headley’s translation of Beowulf. Yes, that Beowulf: the 3,180 line epic poem that’s a thousand years old. Her translation is incredibly accessible, deft, and pyrotechnic. If at all possible, read it in one sitting - it’s an absolute delight.
Tales of Two Planets. A collection of short stories, poems, and essays concerning the climate crisis. My favourite story of the collection comes from Daisy Johnson. Her story, “Everything” is a tale of a young woman who has the power to get anything she wants. However, there is of course a cost. But it’s not her who pays the price, other people bear the burden.
The Swallowed Man by Edward Carey. A reimagining of the story of Pinocchio, from the perspective of his father, Geppetto.
Potiki by Patricia Grace. Set on the coast of New Zealand, this novel tells the story of a small Māori community whose ancestral land is threatened by developers who seek to turn it into a hub for tourism.
The Girl in the Flammable Skirt by Aimee Bender. In this collection of sixteen short stories: we meet a person whose partner experiences reverse evolution and becomes a salamander; a librarian who seduces man after man in an effort to drive away grief; and a woman gives birth to her own mother.
Clara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro. If you loved Ishiguro’s 2005 novel Never Let Me Go, then I suspect that you’ll love this too.
Keep Going by Austin Kleon, written for artists but relevant to everyone, whenever I find myself in a bit of a slump, I return to this.
Don’t Touch My Hair by Emma Dabiri. Dabiri explores Black hair history relating to her own Nigerian ancestry as well as in the US, the UK and other parts of Africa and Latin America. Compelling, frequently heartbreaking, and eye-opening.
Spirals in Time: The Secret Life and Curious Afterlife of Seashells by Helen Scales. I didn’t expect to be recommending a book about shells, but Scales’ writing about the biology and ecology of molluscs, intermeshed with human history is absolutely fascinating.
Pandora’s Jar by Natalie Haynes. An examination of the origin stories of some of the most famous women in mythology - including Pandora, Helen, Medusa, Jocasta, Penelope and Medea. As Haynes highlights: “Every telling of a myth is as valid as any other, of course, but women are lifted out of the equation with a monotonous frequency.”
Being a Beast by Charles Foster. Foster, (a repentant country sportsman) seeks to live as a badger, an otter, a fox, a stag, and a swift, in order to better understand their lives and ours. Delightfully odd, and surprisingly touching.
In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado. This dreamscape-like memoir, is a raw telling of Machado’s experience with domestic abuse, and her battle to come to terms with it.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Rather than deliver a straight screen adaptation of Iain Reid’s novel, writer-director Charlie Kaufman instead focuses on the book’s underlying theme - the way regrets have a way of eclipsing the bright spots of a life.
Okja. Korean director Bong Joon Ho’s tricky to categorise film - it’s simultaneously a fable, an animal-buddy movie, satire, and horror.
The Queen’s Gambit. Made me want to learn how to play chess, and was the source material for the best holiday-themed pun on the internet.
The End of the F***ing World. A darkly comic romance between a would-be psychopath, James, and equally troubled teen Alyssa. Surprisingly poignant, beautifully shot, amazing soundtrack.
Tales from the Loop. A science fiction series based on the book by Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag. The series follows the interconnected lives of the residents in the fictional town of Mercer, Ohio; home of an underground experimental physics facility.
Cobra Kai. The Karate Kid reboot which is equal parts trash and treasure.
Undone. From BoJack Horseman creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg, this grown-up animated series is about a woman who starts to see visions of her dead father after suffering a serious car accident.
The David Attenborough series, Seven Worlds, One Planet. Fascinating, but bittersweet as it highlights the myriad ways we are destroying habits, and indeed, the planet itself.
It’s a Sin. Russell T. Davies’ miniseries set in London between 1981-1991 which follows a young group of friends as they come of age against the backdrop of the AIDS crisis.
Stuff I’ve made, done, or tried out
Scheduling fun. For a fortnight I stuck a 30 minute slot in my calendar each day to play with lego. It was lovely and it made me very happy. I’d recommend it. I repeated this exercise a bunch of times over the year.
Spine tinglers: Whilst browsing artist Nina Katchadourian’s website I came across her sorted books project: and decided to see what I could make using the contents on my own bookshelves.
Starting the day with a poem. A lovely idea I thought, but one which didn’t work for me at all. My default mode is to get up, get coffee, and begin work, and reading a poem messed with that habit. So I switched to ending the day with a poem which worked great.
I submitted a proposal for playwriting competition at Chickenshed, a theatre in North London. My play would go on to be selected and performed (over Zoom). It was an amazing experience.
I come to the awful realisation that I have an Alexa “voice” and am troubled by my own behaviour.
Doing at least one thing that makes me feel good every day. I noticed that I find pretty much everything easier (work stuff, life stuff, all the stuff) when I feel good, so I decided to make a conscious effort to do something that made me feel good every day. EG take a walk, read a book, call a friend. One way or another I’ve pretty much stuck to this since late January 2021. I highly recommend it.
Kirsty Hulse’s Confidence Now program, without a doubt the very best gift I’ve bought myself this year.
“You’re not good enough, and those past successes were just a fluke.” Notes on the little voice in my head.
Creating flash fiction using Bananagrams tiles. Not spectacularly successful, but fun.
I wrote some pretty half-baked thoughts on fun whilst slightly high on some spectacular pain relief. Welcome to the inner-workings of my brain! Woop! Or something.
If you’ve never watched the X Files, but would like to sample the series without committing to the full 163 and a half hours of TV, or perhaps if you previously watched some or all of the episodes of the X Files, and fancy a trip down memory lane; (but again, don’t want to actually watch all 11 seasons) then this post is for you.
That’s all from me for now, I’ll send out part two of this thing in a fortnight :)
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