Guest post from Zen Habits: The Unpredictable Freedom and Sweetness of Chaos

One of my favorite blogs, Zen Habits, recently had a blog post that inspired me to share it here — and to supplement it with my own story about letting go of the illusion of control.

The Unpredictable Freedom and Sweetness of Chaos

Post written by Leo Babauta

‘You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star.’ ~Friedrich Nietzsche

I’m going to share a productivity, planning and organizational hack that will change your life. It will yield some unpredictable results, but if you approach it the right way, it could bring some of the most amazing work of your life, along with freedom, joy, exhilaration.

What’s this miraculous hack?

It’s a simple one: let go. Let go of control and allow yourself to be swept away by the powerful currents of life. Let go of planning and embrace not know what will happen. Let go of productivity and be open to new ideas, new opportunities, spontaneous creativity.

The Case for Chaos

Consider what we’re doing when we plan our day, our week, our year: we are trying to exert control over life, and predict with our plans the course our lives will take today, this week, this year.

We are saying: this is what I’m going to do today. This is how things will go. If I get these things done, life will be good. This is my idea of what this day will hold.

Now consider this: we have absolutely no idea if any of this is true. We cannot predict the future with any kind of certainty, and the idea that we can plan based on these shaky predictions is a nice fiction, but a fiction nonetheless. We do not know what will happen today, much less the rest of the week or month. Knowing what will happen this year? What a crock!

And consider: what if we could know? What if we could accurately predict every single day, and plan each day exactly? Would this be a great thing? I submit that it would suck infinitely more than not knowing. Having foreknowledge of the future means we know what will happen each day, which means not only will our days be ridiculously boring, but we’re stuck on one unshakable path. Foreknowledge means a crazy lack of freedom.

So we don’t know what will happen, nor should we want to. We can try to plan, but those plans are not based on real knowledge and probably won’t happen, so planning is a waste of time.

What can we do instead of trying to predict what will happen, instead of planning? Learn to embrace uncertainty, and be open to change. Learn to let go of control, and surf the ever-changing wave. Let unpredictability rule, let randomness be the force of our life, let spontaneity be the rule.

Embracing Chaos for Good

Some random thoughts based on my experiments with letting go:

  • Work is better with chaos. While the idea of having peaceful order to our workday is a nice one, it’s an illusion. And it’s frankly boring. Work based on fun, play, and spontaneity is more interesting. Imagine a project that is started with a spontaneous idea, and then changes course as you do it, embraces the ideas of strangers, ends up in a fantastic new place you could not have possibly foreseen when you started. This is how I did my last book, The Effortless Life, and it was one of the most fun I’ve ever had on a project. It’s how I’m doing all my projects now, actually.
  • A year that isn’t planned. When I started Zen Habits in 2007, I had my year planned out in detail, with goals, actions and weekly plans. That, of course, was tossed out the door as soon as I started writing Zen Habits and meeting my first readers, who changed my life with their feedback and kind attention. My life was turned upside down, my plans became meaningless, and I learned that while life is unpredictable, that unpredictability can bring some amazing things.
  • Be open to new possibilities. I learned, that first year of Zen Habits, to be open to new opportunities. Time and time again, new doors opened for me that I didn’t know — couldn’t know — would even be there. I saw the new door opening, considered it, and went in. That happened repeatedly, and taught me that there is no way to plan a path when you don’t know what each step will bring, what changes will happen to that path as you walk along it.
  • Be open to strangers. Let’s say you plan your day rigidly. You’ve got your productivity system honed, you’re cranking out the tasks. You are a productivity machine! But now you randomly happen upon a stranger who says hi. You say hi back, and now you have a new opportunity: you can talk to this stranger, get to know him. But then you’d deviate from the plan! Do you stick to the plan, or talk to the stranger? Well, sticking to the plan would be more productive, and give you more control over your life. But if you talk to the stranger, you might make a new friend. You might learn something you’d never have learned otherwise. I’ve made some of my best friends like this, because I was willing to deviate from my plans and talk to a stranger.
  • Chaos is creativity, and creativity is chaos. They are the same thing. Creative work doesn’t happen by plan and control. Sure, some of the worlds creative geniuses were detail freaks, but they didn’t make a plan to come up with a creative genius idea — it came to them because they were open to random thoughts, explored paths no one else had thought to look down, took an idea they saw from someone else and twisted it in a new way. Creativity comes from a place of chaos, and it’s only when you open yourself to this lack of control that you can come up with your best creativity.
  • Some things to read: Two of the best books I’ve read recently embrace the idea of uncertainty, and they also happened to come at me from two of my best friends — both of whom I met almost randomly on the Internet. My friend Jonathan Fields wrote Uncertainty, and it’s a great exploration of some of these ideas. My friend Mary Jaksch sent me a book the other day called Bring Me the Rhinoceros that is an excellent use of Zen koans to explore similar ideas. Both books highly recommended.
  • When we let go of our expectations that others will make us happy, we enjoy them more. We get angry and frustrated at people because they don’t act the way we want them to. We expect others to try to make us happy, to go out of their way to give us what we want. This is not why other people exist. When we let go of these expectations, we accept people for who they are, and learn to appreciate this uniqueness.
  • If you don’t expect things to go as planned, you are open to the unplanned. Something might arise that is unexpected, and if you go with it, you’ll have to let go of your previous plans. This can be a wonderful thing. Many people (including the old me) get frustrated when new things come up that were unplanned, when plans go awry, but it doesn’t have to be frustrating. Just expect plans to change, or don’t really plan at all. Expect unplanned things to happen, and when they do, smile.
  • Embrace not knowing what will happen. This is the ultimate freedom. You don’t know what you’re going to do today, nor what will come up. You are locked into nothing. You are completely free to do anything, to pursue any creative pursuit, to try new things as they come up, to be open to meeting new people. It can be scary at first, but if you smile when you think of not knowing, you’ll soon realize it’s a joyous thing.
  • When you’re not focused on one outcome, you open the possibility for many outcomes. Most people are focused on specific goals (outcomes), and relentlessly pursue that outcome. They then dismiss other possibilities as distractions. But what if you have no predetermined outcome? What if you say that anywhere you end up could be good? You now open an infinite amount of possibilities, and you’re much more likely to learn something than if you only try to do the things and learn the things that support your predetermined outcome.

‘It’s a cruel and random world, but the chaos is all so beautiful.’ ~Hiromu Arakawa

You don’t need permission to reprint any article on Zen Habits — this entire blog and all my work is uncopyrighted.


Categories: career, creativity, lifestyle

Tags: , , , , ,

7 replies

  1. Love this post and appreciate your honesty! Have you ever read The Frog and Toad stories for children? There’s one called The List. Toad freaks out because his to-do list flies away and he feels lost without it. Frog gives him a little perspective.

    I find a lot of my to-do lists to be kind of dry. When I can’t remember why anything on the list is important, I put it aside and follow my heart. Usually, that’s when the good stuff happens.

  2. Colleen, I love your video! Your presentation is beautiful, and I love the physicality of your gesture. I tried it and it actually worked for me to – I think in part because it’s what we do in yoga, too, to center and open the heart.

  3. Thank you so much for this delightful post! I adore your video too! Thank you for sharing this. Yum! Boy do us NY’ers need to hear this. 🙂

  4. I’ve always lived this way. After living and breathing the freelance gypsy life, I can’t tell you how many magical, amazing connections and opportunities came out of it. I was always in brand new environments with new people, practically weekly and sometimes even on a daily basis, and I had to both adapt and produce work in a never-ending flow of new egos, confusion, and some good ole hair-pulling. The chaos was both brilliant and sucky but without it this one guy’s life couldn’t have unfolded the way it did.

    Here’s a good example: I overheard a creative director, whose team I wasn’t even working on, telling a coworker about her garden that included a plant called Tulsi that happened to be one of the main ingredients in my friend’s line of ayurvedic botanicals. I popped my head in her office and introduced myself and since it was closing time I walked with her down to the Grand Central trains. Amidst the rush-hour chaos I saw her to her Metro-North train (not even close to the subway I was getting on) and she said, “Well, since you’re assignment here is ending, my friend at another agency needs an Art Director for a product launch immediately. I’m actually going out for drinks with him right now so give me your card.” He ended up calling me Monday morning, I took a 2-hour lunch break to meet him, got the assignment, and worked with him for the two months leading up to moving out of New York City. I made ungodly amounts of money promoting a drug for high blood pressure (!), enough to buy a new car with cash and move to Western Massachusetts with savings for A YEAR! All because of the plant Tulsi, which incidentally is called Holy Basil. Love it.


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