Gathering String

A recent article in the New York Times entitled, “How to Cultivate the Art of Serendipity,” has stirred my thinking. The author, Pagan Kennedy, draws our attention to the importance of finding fresh ideas hidden in the ordinary stuff of life. Among the many historic examples of serendipitous discoveries she describes, she reminds us of the metaphor often used by journalists of “gathering string.” It’s the sense that we are on to something, but not sure of what it is or where it might take us.

Gathering string begins with a willingness to patiently observe and ask great questions. If we are quick to create rigid categories and render snap judgments about all we experience, we blind ourselves to discovery. Developing a high tolerance for ambiguity and cognitive dissonance would seem, to me, a prerequisite for fostering a mind ready for surprises. I think there is also an element of discipline required to deliberately place ourselves in situations where we are receptive enough to see subtle patterns and detect nuances. Perhaps in the end, timing is everything.

Kennedy’s thoughts connected with my view of what a liberal arts education is designed to foster in students. Liberal learning is about liberating the mind and the heart to better understand ourselves, others, and the world. The chief aim is to make us better citizens. At its best a liberal education is about stimulating creativity across academic disciplines and professional fields of study. She offers a suggestion that has intrigued me further, noting:

That’s why we need to develop a new, interdisciplinary field — call it serendipity studies — that can help us create a taxonomy of discoveries in the chemistry lab, the newsroom, the forest, the classroom, the particle accelerator and the hospital. By observing and documenting the many different “species” of super-encounterers, we might begin to understand their minds.

The notion of “super-encounterers” refers to those who have knack for discovery. Maybe by learning more about those who naturally embrace serendipity we can encourage others to be curious as well.  She continues,

Of course, even if we do organize the study of serendipity, it will always be a whimsical undertaking, given that the phenomenon is difficult to define, amazingly variable and hard to capture in data. The clues will no doubt emerge where we least expect them, perhaps in the fungi clinging to the walls of parking garages or the mating habits of bird-watchers. The journey will be maddening, but the potential insights could be profound: One day we might be able to stumble upon new and better ways of getting lost.

Point taken. I suppose organizing serendipity is an oxymoron. Even so, I love the idea of being intentionally receptive, creative, and active in seeing things hidden. We face so many challenges in our global society that will require novel ideas. Giving ourselves permission to gather string more often might be just the thing that helps us begin to ask better questions and generate better answers.

About the Author

Mark Putnam

I'm the lucky individual who carries the title, 21st president of Central College in Pella, Iowa. Passionate about higher education and the issues facing it and the world today, I hope to invoke an engaging conversation with all who are ready to dig in, make a difference and build for the future. Share your thoughts. I'm listening and interested.



6 responses to Gathering String

Rick Ryan says:

As one of the Central grads who began gathering string(s) in the late 60s this article hits a very special sweet spot for me. The first major string led to Central and the numbers of strings that were gathered since then have been many and varied: some were very short and others led to amazing and fulfilling outcomes. Those strings came in numerous sizes and shapes so the inquisitive attentiveness mentioned by Mark is critical to maintain. Personal, professional and social strings are but a few – but I often reflect on that first string and how it enabled me to follow so many more into the future that awaited. The liberal arts string is one that may appear to be relatively short in today’s pressing environment but don’t be fooled and underestimate its length and strength!

Arlan DeKock says:

Dear Mark,
I always read your ruminations, but this one tripped-my-trigger when you referred to Tolerance for Ambiguity. I discovered it at Central while wrestling with such weighty issues like the meaning of prayer, creation in 6 days, the Flood, and even (heaven forbid) dancing. This was of course 1960. During my 5 decades in the academy, I found that the really talented PhD candidates had a great deal of tolerance for ambiguity. If they could formulate a testable hypothesis, great. If they couldn’t they’d remain agnostic.
I have come to ‘believe’ that Tolerance for Ambiguity and Leap of Faith are inversely proportional.
Have a great day.

Jessica Riebkes says:

I recently finished “Unstoppable,” Bill Nye’s new book on climate change. In addition to the fact that Mr. Nye himself could be called a super-encounterer, an early chapter highlights a way of thinking about climate change solutions that is a very much in line with the gathering string metaphor! There’s ideas of cooling the earth with giant sunshades, bubbling the ocean like a fountain, and more–each idea is far fetched but leads to the right kind of questioning. At the risk of another oxymoron, I suggest this book for the syllabus of serendipity studies!

April Feldman says:

Thank you for this blog post. What a beautiful reminder to stay curious. I love the metaphor of gathering string. I find myself doing this frequently as I grope my way down an undefined career path in a new field of study. This was heartening and true to the heart of Central. Thanks again.

Steve Bell says:

If I were still teaching broadcast journalism,”Gathering String” would be required reading. My liberal arts education at Central was the best possible preparation for a “calling” that demanded a willingness to patiently observe(maybe not always patiently)and ask great questions. And even more important in today’s world are developing a high tolerance for ambiguity and cognitive dissonance. As a less than friendly Chinese saying puts the challenge, “may you live in interesting times.”

These reflections remind me of Korean Zen Master Seungsahn, who taught “only don’t know.” Presence and letting go of concepts can open one to the mystery of life itself.