Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The laws of planned spontaneity

The phrase “planned spontaneity” sounds at first like an oxymoron. “Planned” and “spontaneous” are polar opposites. I have coined this phrase in an effort for me to understand why I have seen spontaneity sometimes work and sometimes fail. A consideration of the following vignettes from my life and an analysis of them leads to some suggestions to make effective use of spontaneity.

My brief notoriety as a chess player

When I was in Junior High, I experienced some success as a chess player. I joined chess club, and played chess whenever I could. Over a period of two years, I kept track of my wins and losses, and found I won two out of every three games.
In our chess club was a fellow by the name of David H. He was the undisputed master of the chessboard. His father had been grand master for the state of Wisconsin. David had been taught chess in the cradle. He was a walking encyclopedia of chess games. One tactic he used to unnerve his opponents was to reply to your move by saying something like, “Ah, yes! Spasky vs. Hilmer, 1963.” I suspected he made it all up.
Another tactic he would use would be to say “mate in six” right after his move. That meant that in six moves he would checkmate you. Against most players, his predictions were accurate. Against me, his predictions were frequently wrong. That is not to say that I was a better player than he, or than his other competitors. He eventually prevailed in almost every game against me, and my record against others was not spectacular.
My brief notoriety came when I actually won against David H. I was the only person in the history of our chess club to checkmate him.
David was showing off. He was playing against four other people on four other boards. I caught him in “Fool's Mate”. Fool's mate is a short sequence of moves at the the beginning of the game which is easily defended against if noticed, and easily noticed if you are watching. No self-respecting chess master would think of using Fool's Mate. David was certainly not expecting me to pull it on him.
David and I had completely different chess styles. David carefully planned out his strategy. He considered not only his own moves many moves in advance, but considered counter-moves that I might make. He sporadically spent long periods of time staring at the board. I played chess by the seat of my pants. I concentrated on the strategy of getting my pieces out where I might need them. I had a simple approach: I developed key pieces, and I looked for serendipitous opportunities.
I have no delusions about being as good a chess player as David H. I was completely out of his league. I realize that I could not possibly hope to compete with him without radically changing my strategy. Here we come to law #1: In a controlled environment (such as a chess game), there is no strategy as good as careful planning.
Even though David was far more skilled than I, I was often able to temporarily throw him for a loop by doing something unexpected. Because of my unorthodox strategy, I frequently loused up his careful plans by doing something out of the blue. In a tightly structured game like chess, this unorthodox approach cannot be successful for long. But as a game becomes more random, planning is more often thwarted, and the player who keeps an eye open for opportunities is rewarded. Law #1a: In an unpredictable environment, careful planning is not nearly as good as spontaneity.

My favorite hobby: cooking

When my first wife (not her real name) and I were married, I did all the cooking, and initially we did grocery shopping together. She (always the practical one) found this very stressful, since I purchased a lot of impulse items. This was great for me, because I truly enjoyed cooking, and we always had a good supply of weird things to cook. The only drawback for me was that I would often need to make a trip to the store while I was preparing dinner to get one little thing I forgot. My wife's sensibleness, and our budget, soon prevailed and my wife went shopping by herself.
I think I still have a jar of pickled okra which I purchased on impulse over ten years ago. This jar stands as a testament of law #2: Pure spontaneity does not work. Not only do you spend money on things that aren't used, but you often miss some of the things you need.
The ensuing period in our marriage was a gastronomical low. My wife did not enjoy cooking, and seldom cooked. Because of this, she was ill-suited to predict what I might need in making supper. We ate a lot of boring meals. I found that preparing Swanson TV dinners did little to sate my appetite for creativity.
Eventually, we came to a compromise in the form of a grocery list. When I spontaneously came up with an idea for a meal, or used up the last of the mushrooms, all I needed to do was write down what I wanted on a sheet of paper. So long as I managed to get the item on the list before Saturday afternoon, it would appear in the refrigerator by Saturday evening. The idea allowed me to prepare the cupboards for spontaneous cooking, and it allowed my wife to shop frugally. The grocery list also served to filter out the more ludicrous impulse items, such as curried frog eyeballs. [If I didn't see them staring at me out of the jar on the store's shelf, I could spend weeks not thinking about curried frog eyeballs, and they would not make it on the list.]
For me, this was a lesson in planned spontaneity. I had learned that I can only practice spontaneous cooking if a small amount of planning went into stocking the shelves with the right building blocks. Spices, flour, tomato paste, and fresh vegetables are some of the right building blocks for spontaneous cooking. Chef Boyardee ravioli is not.
An important tenet of planned spontaneity is having the resources to be spontaneous. In cooking, this tenet translates to making sure there is a ready stock of staples. In chess, this tenet translates to putting chess-pieces where they might be useful. In war, this translates to Charlemagne's words, “It is smarter to be lucky than it's lucky to be smart.” Law #3: Luck is planned resourcing for spontaneity.

Fixing vacuum cleaners

When my first wife (still not her real name) and I moved (umpteen years ago, now), she carted the old vacuum cleaner to the curb for the garbage men to haul away. The hose had fallen apart, and it did not have a nifty beater bar like our new vacuum. She saw this as useless junk that we would have to both move and find space for in the new house. In her structured and efficient manner, she was making life easier for us.
I saw the vacuum cleaner as an important resource for spontaneity. I pulled it out of the pile of junk and loaded it into the moving van. In my wife's structured and efficient manner, she did not make an issue out of it.
It came to pass in our new house that the motor of our new vacuum cleaner burned out. In the true spirit of planned spontaneity, I saw this as an opportunity. I dug out the old vacuum cleaner with the broken hose. I found that the motors in the two units were identical, so I replaced the motor in our new vacuum cleaner. We got several more year's use out of the vacuum cleaner, and I dutifully saved the electrical cord and switch out of the old one, just in case I need them.
This story illustrates law #4: Structure and efficiency work to destroy the resources for spontaneity.

Review of the laws

In the interest of clarity, I have listed the laws of planned spontaneity below. Note that these are not laws in the “Thou shalt not”, or “Thou shalt” sense. The word “should” and “must” do not appear in the laws. These laws are observations about how things work. We cannot talk about breaking any of these laws any more than we can talk about breaking the law of gravity.
Law #1: In a controlled environment (such as a chess game), there is no strategy as good as careful planning.
Law #1a: In an unpredictable environment, careful planning is not nearly as good as spontaneity.
Law #2: Pure spontaneity does not work.
Law #3: Luck is planned resourcing for spontaneity.
Law #4: Structure and efficiency work to destroy the resources for spontaneity.

1 comment:

  1. Your instincts in chess are good ones. It is quite possible to take players out of the standard openings in the first three or four moves, in effect dragging them where they don't want to go.