Happy accidents or the art of improvisation

Published 1:12 pm Monday, October 22, 2018

Robert Ross didn’t know what he wanted to do when he grew up.

A high-school dropout from Florida, he was working as a carpenter until he lost part of his index finger to a saw. Since the injury inhibited his carpentry skills, Robert enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, rising quickly through the ranks to Master Sergeant.

While stationed in Alaska, he saw snow-capped mountains for the first time, a stunning landscape that would change the course of his destiny. He started taking art lessons at the Anchorage U.S.O. club in an effort to capture the beauty of the mountains.

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He became obsessed with a television show called The Magic of Oil Painting, hosted by Bill Alexander. Robert spent hours perfecting a style called alla prima ( “wet on wet”), layering wet paint to finish a painting in half an hour. He was broke but happy, taking on a bartending gig to pay for art supplies and letting his high and tight grow out to save money on haircuts.

He retired from the military and joined Alexander’s art supply company as a traveling salesman, where he met many people in the art world. It was during this time that Robert was contacted by American Public Television to host a show they were launching called The Joy of Painting.

The rest is history. Robert “Bob” Ross hosted that show for 31 seasons, garnering several Emmy awards and delighting millions with his soothing voice and inspiring world view.

Bob Ross walked a winding road to a purposeful life. He never felt like he started painting too late in life. In fact, he always maintained that his life had unfolded in exactly the right way. He believed mistakes were simply opportunities to learn something new. “There are no mistakes,” he cooed on one show. “… only happy accidents”.

Some of the best things on earth were happy accidents (think penicillin, beer, Velcro or Simon and Garfunkel both getting cast in their elementary production of Alice in Wonderland). But you cannot get the happy accident without trying something new.

Sadly, our fear of making a mistake paralyzes us from trying something new; we fear something bad happening, so we make nothing happen at all. But it’s only in trying something new that we create the opportunity for the happy accident.

A creative, purpose-filled life is not linear or logical or predictable, but instead crazy and irrational and surprising. It’s filled with experiments and trials, learning and screwing up and trying something else. It’s improvisational theatre, or pushing the story forward by always saying yes to what comes. Sometimes it flops, but sometimes you get a beautiful oops.

We can start by taking a cue from Improv, where the rule is to always replace the term “Yes, but…” with “Yes, and…” We are hardwired by evolution to play devil’s advocate, to run through all the ways an experience can go wrong. But this shuts us off from many creative and interesting opportunities.

“Yes, and” accepts whatever life offers, but leaves space for us to put our personal spin on it. This phrase encourages us to listen and be receptive to what we hear. It honors the contribution of others but places the responsibility for where to go next firmly on our shoulders.

Think again about Bob Ross. The lost finger led him to the Air Force, which sent him to Alaska, where he fell in love with nature and started painting, which led him to seek out the show’s host, where upon he started selling art supplies, where he met many people in the art world, which led to being asked to host his own show, which culminated in 31 seasons of making the world a more beautiful place.

If at any point he had said, “yes, but …”, fearfully talking himself out of the next step, we would sadly be without thousands of happy little trees.

Erin Smith is the owner of the OM place in Winchester, the author of “Sensible Wellness” and the online host of the OM channel. Follow her on Twitter @erinsmithauthor.