New insights often come through accidents, failures, mistakes, chance encounters.
I learned this first as a young student at art school. Often a clumsy mark or a mistake in a printing process ended up cohering so well with the surrounding image, it exceeded my intentions.
As the saying goes: “accident is the mother of invention.”
This common wisdom is mirrored today in places as diverse as Carl Jung’s pondering on synchronicity and business development gurus’ motivational strategies.
In higher education failures, mistakes and accidents have quite a different meaning. With the pressure of ongoing assessment in modular, semester-only, units there is often little chance to learn from mistakes or profit from accidental discoveries. However it seems that those students who do manage to reposition or reinterpret their lives – including failures and coincidences – as forming some kind of pattern, adapt more easily to the learning environment.
In a study of first year university students Steve Hladkyj found that those students who had a more developed sense of synchronicity – ie a sense that coincidence was not just meaningless – also showed better psychological adaptation to first year university life.
Hladkyj moves the debate about synchronicity away from metaphysics towards “a pragmatically useful concept in those domains of life which interface with issues of self-identity, motivation, and general psychological health.” He writes:
Synchronicity is a “kind or style of thinking” characterized chiefly by an active process in which the person continually works (mostly unconsciously, I suspect) on the “re-authoring” of their self-identity in such a way that their self-identity increasingly “meshes” with the world in which they live. As the world changes, then, so must self-identity; and both must be fit into each other into a kind of flexible on-going “story” of self-world identity. Because of this analogy to “authoring a story”, I call the process “narrative emplotment” (a term I have hijacked from literary theory and criticism).
In other words, self-identity is a story we tell ourselves to guide ourselves through life. But it is not a fixed story – it must continually change in order to adapt to new situations, new stages of our lives, and so on. Adaptation is survival, in a word, and in terms of self-identity, those who are able to change, elaborate, create new networks of self-referenced meaning, and so on, may be those best suited to survival, particularly in a world that changes almost from day-to-day.
In a later paper Hladkyj and colleagues show that this sense of building a sense of control – through a series of different strategies – is particularly important for students who are not doing well academically.
[This type of control] is hypothesized to consist of four distinct dimensions including predictive control (avoiding disappointment), illusory control (alignment with fate, god), vicarious alignment (identification with others), and interpretation (deriving meaning from one’s limitations). As such, in contrast to primary control strategies such as persistence and effort secondary control strategies may include the downgrading of expectations or task importance, accepting limitations, or perceiving benefits from an otherwise adverse experience