Prepared for the Worst, and becoming more and more dissatisfied with the Best, I am already anticipating the incomparable joys of growing old.” Italo Calvino

One of the themes that keeps running across my inbox lately is the sense of change in our lives and how this reflects the things we strive for. How do we evaluate where we are and where we’d like to go when so much is not up to us to decide? Or changes unbeknownst to us, or against our will? Do we stick to our guns, hunker down and grip the reins more tightly? Do we steadfastly keep our eyes on the prize, suffer no distraction or detours to our aims? Or is it something else we should be trying to do?

For instance, this past several firing cycles not only was my kiln misbehaving but my new batch of Iron Oxide changed my old reliable glaze from something I had dedicated myself to to something radically different. I expected one thing and something very different happened.

What do we do in those situations? Pitch a fit and rail against the unjust randomness of the Universe? Search for more control, for better approximations to our inviolable standards? Scour the known world for ways to reproduce precisely what we had before? Go to whatever lengths necessary to preserve the exact details of our brand? Or ease ourselves into the flow of change and the randomness of chance as it moves us? Find our new selves in new standards in new circumstance….?

Do we fight against this seemingly inevitable change, or do we accept it gracefully? Do we even seek it out and encourage it when possible? This is almost entirely a question of our attitude. It is less about the state of the Universe itself. And our implausible desire to be in control of how all the details work out only confuses the matter…..

What I was aiming for....

What I was aiming for….

What I got.

What I got.

Here’s one opinion that seems to make eminent sense to me:

“I think that, to some degree, this is part of my character as a designer: To keep moving and not get stuck in my own past. This is what I try very hard to do.

I think at that moment in my life, I found a peculiar path: To continually discard a lot of the things that I knew how to do in favor of finding out what I didn’t. I think this is the way you stay alive professionally.


That is a great feeling: when you feel the possibility of learning. It’s a terrible feeling to feel you can’t learn or have reached the end of your potential.” Milton Glaser

And it seems that this sort of openness is at war with our expectations. The more we are ruled by expectation the less we have room to navigate the unknown. Expectations are designed to keep us where we think we are or put us where we think we need to be. Its a compass by which we intend to steer. We plot and plan as though the evidence we have is always enough to guarantee our success or our happiness. The unknown rather than being a place of discovery is a place to be avoided. If we can ‘see’ our potential success then we have something to aim for. “Go with what you know” is the motto.

And so, serendipity ends up being the enemy of our expectations. The success and happiness we can’t imagine, can’t see, and can’t anticipate we don’t plan for, don’t accommodate, and don’t actively strive to accept. The door is mostly shut against them. Its as if our hands only close about the things we anticipate, the things we already understand. You can’t want what you don’t know, so we end up only wanting what we already do know. Simple as that. We trade openness to the randomness of chance for the concreteness of our expectations. Its one of the illusions of our control.

The question is, how much does this controlling urge limit us. David McRaney explores this on his blog “You are Not so Smart”:

It might seem disheartening, the fact that successful people probably owe more to luck than anything else, but only if you see luck as some sort of magic. Take off those superstitious goggles for a moment, and consider this: the latest psychological research indicates that luck is a long mislabeled phenomenon. It isn’t a force, or grace from the gods, or an enchantment from fairy folk, but the measurable output of a group of predictable behaviors. Randomness, chance, and the noisy chaos of reality may be mostly impossible to predict or tame, but luck is something else. According to psychologist Richard Wiseman, luck – bad or good – is just what you call the results of a human beings consciously interacting with chance, and some people are better at interacting with chance than others.


Wiseman speculated that what we call luck is actually a pattern of behaviors that coincide with a style of understanding and interacting with the events and people you encounter throughout life. Unlucky people are narrowly focused, he observed. They crave security and tend to be more anxious, and instead of wading into the sea of random chance open to what may come, they remain fixated on controlling the situation, on seeking a specific goal. As a result, they miss out on the thousands of opportunities that may float by. Lucky people tend to constantly change routines and seek out new experiences. Wiseman saw that the people who considered themselves lucky, and who then did actually demonstrate luck was on their side over the course of a decade, tended to place themselves into situations where anything could happen more often and thus exposed themselves to more random chance than did unlucky people. The lucky try more things, and fail more often, but when they fail they shrug it off and try something else. Occasionally, things work out.

Wiseman told Skeptical Inquirer magazine that he likened it to setting loose two people inside an apple orchard, each tasked with filling up their baskets as many times as possible. The unlucky person tends to go to the same few spots over and over again, the basket holding fewer apples each visit. The lucky person never visits the same spot twice, and that person’s basket is always full. Change those apples to experiences, and imagine a small portion of those experiences lead to fame, fortune, riches, or some other form of happiness material or otherwise, and you can see that chance is not as terrifying as it first appears, you just need to learn how to approach it.

“The harder they looked, the less they saw. And so it is with luck – unlucky people miss chance opportunities because they are too focused on looking for something else. They go to parties intent on finding their perfect partner and so miss opportunities to make good friends. They look through newspapers determined to find certain type of job advertisements and as a result miss other types of jobs. Lucky people are more relaxed and open, and therefore see what is there rather than just what they are looking for.” – Richard Wiseman in an article written for Skeptical Inquirer

I would suggest that this is a lesson especially important for artists. We often get hung up in expectations. We sometimes pledge our allegiance to how we feel right now. As if our current standards and values were immovable objects. As if we were truly consistent among all things in the world that suffer change. In short, we trust ourselves at this very moment, despite the evidence that we are very different from who we were in our past, and likely to be different again in our future.

Its a gamble that the security of what we know now will outweigh the risks of trying new things and venturing out into the unknown. It trades adventure for comfort. Its a throw of the dice that stakes all on our expectations, and our expectations are only based on the very few outcomes we have already seen…… We’d rather expect than not know. Our control and our understanding seem to have this intimate link, and we are addicted to the idea of control. We’d rather live by our convictions of being right than admit to the possibility of other truths…..

Think of it like this: We go to a restaurant we’ve been going to for the last several years only to find that the place is under new management and they’ve changed the menu. Some of the old standbys are still offered, but the rest of the menu is now entirely different. What do we order? The same old same old? Something new? This is the choice we have. But then just to throw a bit of further randomness in, it turns out the old cooks have been laid off and the new owner’s brother-in-law is cooking. Maybe it turns out he likes garlic much more than the old chef. Even when we think we are in control we may not have as firm an influence as we thought…….

The calculus for individual human scale occurrences is not like our calculus for Natural Laws, Physics, Chemistry, and Math. 2 + 2 we can admit will only equal 4, but its never that simple in human affairs. And maybe that’s why this great scientist and thinker was moved to say this:

imagination is more important than knowledge

Maybe some things to think about…….

Peace all!

Make beauty real!


About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
This entry was posted in Art, Arts education, Beauty, Creative industry, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Unstuck

  1. Pingback: What was I thinking… in 2013? | CARTER GILLIES POTTERY

  2. bill paul says:

    i collect pottery…art pottery from the 20s ands 30s….ken park mentioned your pottery to me today….nice…thanks…bill paul

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