Improved By Randomness

June 29, 2020
Sam Marfleet

“Bizarre travel plans are dancing lessons from God.”

Kurt Vonnegut

When a computer wants to keep something safe—like “fend off cyberattacks from foreign governments” safe—it asks you to do a number of strange things.

Hit your spacebar a number of times. Wiggle your mouse around. Ping a few networks. Let it measure the exact time between clicks and keystrokes. To assemble a treasure trove of junk data.

What the computer is asking you to do is to inject some randomness into the system.

In the world of digital encryption, the strength of a system is dependent on the quality of random numbers it uses. Simply put, it doesn’t matter how long your password is if I can guess it by knowing the first three digits.

But, by starting with a seed of randomness, the same device you use to shuffle emails and put off talking to family members can generate an encryption strong enough to protect your data until, oh, say, the heat death of the universe.

What cryptography helps illustrate is the brittle nature of the patterned life. How systems unable to benefit from uncertainty fall easily to outside forces. In Film and Television we see this play out to the advantage of The Chessmaster—Varys The Spider—a strategist whose mastery of human patterns breaks entire armies.

But impersonal fate can be as antagonistic as any spymaster or hacker.

If nothing else, 2020 has shown us that tomorrow’s news can quickly make a mess of today’s plans. Up to now, I have dealt with this by clinging to patterns that give the illusion of control—by holding to routine and habit.

I’m realizing that this is a dead-end.

If I want to have any small chance of influencing my future, I must work on embracing uncertainty.

But it hasn’t been easy.

The Illusion Of Security

This week I found an essay that I really needed. It’s about coping during the pandemic.​

The author, Salman Ansari, describes his struggle with the illusion of security. This is the unspoken expectation that life proceeds according to a plan. Few of us consciously think so. But the illusion works anyway because, as soon as we stop paying attention to just how random things are, we attach ourselves to hard expectations and are heartbroken when they don’t pan out.

This writing project was born of that heartbreak.

When COVID-19 became a reality, I, like you, felt whiplashed by the speed with which life’s concerns shifted from the frivolous to the essential. Unpleasant as it was, the shock bought me a brief window of clarity and the time to reflect on the past two years.

And I was furious.

What have I been doing with my time?

What have I traded for a life with “minimal” risk? How many enriching experiences have I opted out of? What’s a life without sailing across the Atlantic, living as a writer, travelling, and giving of yourself ‘till it hurts?

What’s playing it safe worth if a pandemic shows up anyway?

If risk is just baked into life, irrespective of the path we take, then I’d like to risk my life living creatively. Come what may.

And in the four months since that decision I have thrown myself wholeheartedly into this pursuit. I have thought of this as building resilience.

So you can just imagine my horror when I read this quote, originally by Pema Chodron, cited in Salman’s essay,

“The mind is always seeking zones of safety, and these zones of safety are continually falling apart. Then we scramble to get another zone of safety back together again. We spend all our energy and waste our lives trying to re-create these zones of safety, which are always falling apart.(emphasis mine)​

That, friends, ruined my day.

Immediately I thought of my carefully crafted writing routine, my need for total silence, my hopes for growth, the challenges that have frustrated me, and, above all, my expectations for fulfillment.

What if this isn’t resilience? What if I’m just rushing for a new zone of safety? New castles to be knocked flat at the next shakeup?​

What’s more likely? That I’d found some new direction? Or that I’d reverted back to my old ways—just by another name?

From Resilience To Serendipity

What does it matter?

Well, happy as I am with the past four months, I have been struggling to see beyond the next week. Maybe that’s just the heightened uncertainty of the world. But I’m still rigidly planning my days like I have somewhere to go.

What am I doing?

Salman’s distinction between building resilience and creating zones of illusory safety is everything. It forces me to ask the question:

Is this my boat? Or is it busywork? Will it all come crashing down the next time the earth shifts?

It comes down to this: If I’m spending all my time avoiding uncertainty then I don’t have a hope of deciding where it is that I want to go. If I’m blinded by the illusion of certainty then I cannot set out a vision of my own future, much less one for my family.​

I’m tired of living life on the back foot. But to go on the offensive I need to see the world for what it is: pretty damn random.

What Now?

In my early 20’s the question was,

“Can you discipline yourself? Can you conduct yourself to the standards expected of you? Can you be relied upon?”

I’m married now and approaching 30. As happens around times of change, I’m beginning to remember my dreams. It seems to me that the question is now different. I’m asked,

“Can you bend the arc of your life towards a vision of the future?”

It is clear that there is no hope of answering it if I cannot make my peace with uncertainty. As long as my eyes are fixed to the ground, willing the earth to be still, I cannot look forward.

There’s a tension here between making plans and embracing uncertainty. Some of this is still unclear to me. Perhaps there are naïve plans that fail to account for the random reality of the world. Then there are visions or directions which prove adaptable in the face of uncertainty.

I’d like less of the former and more of the latter.

So I am challenging myself to become acquainted with uncertainty.

I will be doubling down on my strengths, engaging in more public-facing discussions, meditating on discomfort and self-trust, leaving empty space in my calendar, and paying careful attention in moments where I feel particularly risk-averse.

What I will not be doing is trying to shore up my weaknesses or obsess over perfection.

Is this the best way to become improved by randomness? I do not know. This is a work in progress and I retain the right to update these practices as I go. For now, my intent is to make the case that this thing called the illusion of security is durable, persistent, and difficult to break through. But the struggle to do so is entirely necessary if we are to live purpose-driven lives.​