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Space for serendipity

by Adam Clark 11. November 2010 16:50
Adam Clark

Gay Life Coach Adam Clark

I recently heard an interview with Joe Wright, the director of the film Atonement. He was being interviewed by Francine Stock for BBC Radio 4. One of the things she asked him about was the remarkable mock-up of the Dunkirk evacuation.

Those of you who have seen the film, will, I am sure, have been impressed by this shot. It involved over 2,000 extras on Redcar beach playing the remnants of the British and French armies waiting to be evacuated in the late spring of 1940 as Hitler's army advanced through France. The film includes an amazing take lasting more than five minutes where the camera weaves through the soldiers as they find ways to pass their time on the beach, waiting for the boats to come that will, hopefully, take them to safety. Wright explained how he set up the shot. He left the extras to improvise much of what was caught on camera. He set the camera rolling, and then, just as he started filming, the clouds parted to let through an eerie milky light that gave the scene a particularly chilling quality. Wright admitted that he couldn't have made lighting conditions like that happen. When talking about the shot, he described how he had to do a lot of preparation, but how this was just a safety net to allow space for what he called serendipity. He explained how he had to have faith that the scene would work. He didn't take credit for the wonderful light, but enjoyed how it transformed the scene.

Joe Wright's interview got me thinking about serendipity. The word was coined by Horace Walpole in the 18th Century to describe the effect by which one accidentally discovers something fortunate, especially while looking for something else. Walpole was said to have invented the word having read a Persian fairy tale called The Three Princes of Serendip. In this story, the three eponymous princes were set tasks, but made clever or accidental discoveries along the way that brought them unsought rewards.

Following the example of the Princes of Serendip, Joe Wright did the preparation for his epic shot and then left the rest to chance, trusting that things would work out well. I think that we, in our everyday lives, need to learn to leave space for those magical, chance happenings. For serendipity.

How to make space for those magical, chance happenings

1. Ditch the distractions

Many of us lead lives that are packed with activity. We are bombarded with information and find it difficult to cope with the sheer volume of information thrown at us. I believe the first step in making space for chance happenings is cutting down this clutter. For example if you have constantly to struggle to keep your inbox clear of spam, change your email address and let only those you want to contact you know what it is. And be careful what you sign up to receive. In the last month, three of my clients have told me that they've deleted their Facebook profiles. There's nothing wrong with Facebook per se, but the sheer volume of distracting emails and contacts it was creating for them had become oppressive. They created more space and time for themselves by freeing themselves from it.

2. Be still

It's important to spend at least some of the day being still. I start the day with a series of exercises that involve with me lying on the floor, sensing my body and noticing my breathing. Even this morning, when I had to leave the house at 6:15am for an early morning meeting, I spent a few minutes on the floor stilling myself. Experiment with being still at different times of the day, note the effects, and see which works best for you.

3. Stimulate your imagination

The raw material for my writing is the experiences I have of life. But living life is not enough if I'm to be imaginative and novel in my work. I need to spend some time each day reading and making notes from books on psychology and wellbeing. I'm now in the habit of spending ten minutes stimulating my imagination in this way every morning before I start my work for the day, even if I've got lots to do. It's a question of priorities; my work all seems more manageable if I've first read extracts from an author whose writing I respect. But it's a discipline to make myself do this, especially when the tasks of the day are pressing.

4. Make time for the things that give you energy

One of my clients is a wonderful yoga teacher. She is also an astute business woman and a lovely person. My coaching with her has taken the opposite course to that I would have expected. Instead of helping her to come up with goals for herself, and holding her to account, I've recently been helping her to let go of goals. She is tremendously self-disciplined and very conscientious. However in the busy-ness of her life, she no longer had time to practise yoga on her own. She needed to give up some of the things she was doing so that she could spend a few minutes three or four times a week doing yoga on her own. For all of us, it's important to ensure we have time for the things that feed and stimulate us. Think about the things you love doing, that you can lose yourself in. What can you do to make sure you have time for more of them?

5. Let go

When you've done the preparation for something, it's important to let go. Trust yourself that you will do it, and do it well. If you're plagued by doubt, learn to let go of the fantasy that things are bound to go wrong. You can learn to be more optimistic. You can learn to leave space to chance. To those wonderful unexpected happenings that make being a human being such a rich experience. To serendipity.

Adam Clark


Adam Clark is 38 and lives with his partner of 19 years in Wimbledon. Through Gay Life Coach he has helped hundreds of people to bring about sustained changes in their lives. Those he has worked with have praised the way he has built their confidence and helped them through difficult times.

Adam offers a free initial coaching consultation. You can contact him on 07947 959869 or through his website www.gaylifecoach.co.uk

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