To make meaningful lives that work for us, we need mental space. How else can we be open to seeing and hearing the prompts and opportunities that occur around us? Serendipities will slide right by us if we don’t recognize them and respond. Recently, Frans Johansson wrote an interesting blog in the Harvard Business Review about the role of serendipity in business success—not only his own, but also unexpected moments that forever changed life for the owners of Microsoft and Google.
I’m a fan of serendipity myself. That’s how my book title appeared after more than six months of searching and talking about it. Suddenly and unexpectedly. Far from home, in Bali. At a communal breakfast table, in my lodging. Via a professor from the U.S., who I’d never met before. She listened to my description of what my book is about, suggested a title, and I made an adjustment. In an inspired moment, we had it—Conscious Spending. Conscious Life.
It would be easy to say, “Thank you, Becky Thompson,” and leave it at that. However, this doesn’t do justice to what transpired. I was part of the picture too—present, listening, and paying attention to what was in front of me in the moment.
Seeing and acting on these serendipitous moments is both an opportunity and responsibility. Yet it’s easy to miss them in a consumer culture because of the noise and clutter out there. My mother raised four children in a small house, in a climate where winter kept us inside for many months of the year. In exasperated moments, she would burst out: “Will you kids be quiet! I can’t hear myself think.” I suppose this was my introduction to the idea that mental space is important.
In the consumer culture, we can only hear ourselves think when we carve out mental space. Unlike my mother, we can’t just ask the noisemakers—the advertisers—to be quiet. But we can set an intention to create some thinking time, then follow through with specific actions that remove us from the mental clutter for a while. Half an hour in a warm bath (with instructions that no one is to knock on the door unless the house is on fire). Meditation. A cup of coffee in the living room in the early hours before anyone else is up. On the treadmill. In the sauna. Walking around the neighbourhood.
It takes conscious effort to do any of these things. The busy-ness of life—earning a living, making enough money to buy things and experiences, raising children, keeping up with the demands of our “timesaving” technologies—these tie up our mental energy. If we don’t consciously create the mental space in which we can design our own lives, it happens by default. The forces of the consumer culture will propel us in their own direction, and we may find ourselves in lives we don’t like…wondering how we got there.