One of the eeriest parts of life is when things–situations, places, people, topics, ideas, opportunities–align before your eyes. For me, the alchemy seems strongest at the intersection of the books I read, the places I explore, the people I meet, and the conversations I have. In travel, all four have the chance to play.
My story, of course, is one of many coincidences. I’m convinced most are if we’re paying attention. My 2012 European wander (and subsequently the story of it in my TEDx talk) felt like an opus of spectacular coincidences and chance encounters, leading to one grand finale: I’d accidentally pass through Metz, France, the very place my love for travel was born, and the place where I’d pay proper homage to my friend whose death instigated the journey in the first place.
Three recent encounters made me ponder once again the mystery of coincidence.
But first….a quick (and goofy) hello from me explaining why I wrote the post below, plus a warm welcome to new subscribers (there’s a bunch of you!).
Encounter #1: San Francisco
The first encounter happened a few years ago, but still sits fresh in my memory.
I was walking around San Francisco’s Pacific Heights neighborhood listening to the audiobook of The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life. As I huffed and puffed up the urban mountain that is Fillmore street and crossed over Broadway, I listened to the narrator describe Buffett’s ex-wife Susie’s move to San Francisco in 1986:
“…she hop-scotched into an apartment in Pacific Heights… This large condominium on Broadway sat at the top of four dizzying flights of stairs and had a glorious view over the bay from the Golden Gate Bridge to Alcatraz.”
I turned around to marvel at the “four dizzying flights of stairs” I just hiked up and looked onward to the bay holding both the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz. I about shit myself. Of the almost infinite number of coordinates on Earth, I was standing on the precise one being announced into my ears.
Encounter #2: Madrid and Munich
The second encounter(s) happened twice over the past few weeks. Once in Madrid. Once in Munich.
I was visiting both cities to meet and speak to the local Escape communities there. Within my first few hours in Madrid, I learned that Sean, a friend-of-a-friend, had been living there for the past few years to open up a chain of burrito restaurants called Tierra. We met up for dinner and beers. After a subsequent series of lunches, dinners and drinks we quickly discovered that both of us were happy to cut the superficial chat and dive deep into life’s largest questions. Both of us, it turned out, were wrestling with mirroring questions and challenges.
A few days later I flew to Munich to give a talk. The Facebook gods told me that another acquaintance-turned-friend, Adam “Smiley” Poswolski (author of The Quarter-Life Breakthrough), also happened to be in Munich giving a talk. We met up, walked around English Garden and drank Weissbier while discussing the world of work, writing and book ideas. Oddly (or not so oddly) we have similar ideas for books. Who knows where this might lead, but my gut says we’ll work together on something in the future.
An impromptu trip to two cities on opposite sides of Europe kickstarted a new friendship and strengthened another.
Encounter #3: London
The third encounter happened last week while heading out for a morning run.
Tom, the maintenance guy at my apartment in London, loves to shoot the shit and stopped me to chat football:
“England is playing Germany in a friendly today. If you want to kill some time, go check it out.”
The phrase “kill some time” rubbed me weird. I proceeded to walk toward Victoria Park, put my headphones back on, and un-paused the podcast I was listening to: “The Man Who Studied 1,000 Deaths to Learn How to Live”.
Then I thought about the book I’m reading, Your Money or Your Life, in which the authors equate money to mean “something we choose to to trade our life energy for.” And our life energy as “our allotment of time here on Earth, the hours of precious life available to us.”
Then I recalled a few days prior when I decided to re-watch Steve Jobs’ infamous 2008 Stanford commencement address, where he says “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.”
And then I remembered the phrase I read in David Whyte’s Crossing The Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity, a book I finished last week:
“Our relationship to time has become corrupted exactly because we allow ourselves very little experience of the timeless. We speak continually of saving time, but time in its richness is most often lost to us when we are busy without relief…We speak of stealing time as if it no longer belonged to us. We speak of needing time as if it wasn’t around us already in every moment. We want to make time for ourselves as if it were in our power to do so.”
(And literally just a moment ago I took a naughty Twitter break and I spotted a Benjamin Franklin quote “Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time, for that is the stuff life is made of.”)
Things locked together in my brain like a Da Vinci Code cryptex on a simple, singular theme: the heartbreaking brevity of our time on Earth.
Please, I whispered to myself, don’t ever feel the need to “kill time.” And then skipped around Victoria Park for a few miles.
Mining for Meaning
Of course, meditating on the shortness of life is a recurring theme in human life itself. Philosophers constantly write about it. The topic underlines my story. It birthed this blog. It continues to fuel me in my search to become more deliberate–in work, travel, and in life.
Carl Jung called this stuff Synchronicity. Motivational superman Tony Robbins says it’s more about focus: “wherever focus goes energy flows.” You buy a red car and suddenly all you notice are red cars. You focus on your fleeting time, and miraculously, everything you hear and see reminds you of your new focus.
But is my interaction with Tom the maintenance guy really about synchronicity? A coincidence? How about the audiobook encounter in San Francisco? The real life meetings in Madrid and Munich? And even if they are, what does it matter? What’s the meaning of it all?
I don’t know. But I want to believe the answer is found in how I choose to look at it. And maybe, this goes deep into how we choose look at life in general.
One way is to look at life as a giant, cosmic joke. The fact that we’re here is strange, ridiculous, absurd, meaningless.
Another way is to look at everything as if it’s chock-full of meaning. Just oozing of the stuff. And our task on Earth to decipher the meaning and let it inform why we’re here and how we’re to live.
I was curious about others’ thoughts (and I love quotes), so I went scouring the web. Here’s what Chuck, Albert, and Anais have to say:
“There are two ways to look at life. The first view is that nothing stays the same and that nothing is inherently connected, and that the only driving force in anyone’s life is entropy. The second is that everything pretty much stays the same (more or less) and that everything is completely connected, even if we don’t realize it.” ―Chuck Klosterman
“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is.” –Albert Einstein (unconfirmed, possibly fictitious accreditation)
“There is not one big cosmic meaning for all, there is only the meaning we each give to our life, an individual meaning, an individual plot, like an individual novel, a book for each person.” –Anais Nin
Quite literally, this very morning, when trying to decide how to conclude this piece, I came across a passage from Carl Jung’s autobiography, written when the man was in his eighties. It echoes Nin’s thought:
“I can only make direct statements, only “tell stories.” Whether or not the stories are “true” is not the problem. The only question is whether what I tell is my fable, my truth…” –Carl Jung
So maybe it’s not so black-and-white. Maybe you can hold the cosmic joke theory and still believe that life, our life, is quite literally a miracle. And quite possibly packed with however much (or little) meaning we choose to give it.
So my take is this: you get to decide.
Me? I choose miracle. To look at life like a wonderful story unfolding before my eyes. A glorious piece of folklore. A myth, a legend, a story worth living if I choose to live it. Who knows if it’s true. But experience tells me that life tastes much sweeter when you choose to embrace it as if it’s unraveling magically (and tragically) for you. It’s a grand adventure and your task is to witness, to marvel, and to participate in it as it unravels.
Life’s biggest questions have riddled me since I was a boy. Coincidences, synchronicity, focuses, miracles, meaning; all of it blows my mind to the finest smithereens.
But here’s what I’m learning: maybe how or why these things happen is less important. More important is that we’re aware that they happen. And that we get to choose what they mean to us. We have the power to mine life for personal meaning. We have the freedom to relate it back to our own fable, our own myth, our own experience of truth.
And how miraculous is that?