1969. Midnight Cowboy. Dustin Hoffman as Ratso Rizzo, Jon Voight as Joe Buck. The actors cross an intersection together in heavy New York City traffic. They rehearsed so they wouldn’t have to stop at the corner. They made sure they got to the curb just as the walk light was in their favor and the opposing light turned red, but one pushy taxi driver didn’t think that meant him. He had to slam the brakes on just before hitting the actors in the crosswalk. Without breaking character, Hoffman pounded on the hood of the car and yelled, “I’m walkin’ here!” After the take, director John Schlesinger asked the actors what happened. They told him the cab jumped the light and, according to Hoffman, Schlesinger replied “We have to do it again, just like that!” It wasn’t in the script, but the director intuitively knew that it fit perfectly. A beautiful accident.
The snapshot above was taken by accident as I was putting my phone back in my pocket a few days ago. I didn’t even know it was there until I looked at the device the next day. I instantly fell in love with it. I’m not a prolific selfie artist, nor am I a professional photographer, but I love the composition of this picture. It pretty much captures the day. It seems to say “beautiful day in the city” in a way I could have never devised on my own. The perfect blue sky, the buildings looming overhead, just the right amount of lens flare, sunglasses and a contented look on my face. It’s a keeper, as far as I’m concerned.
Stories abound of beautiful accidents in the arts, from unscripted scenes in films to unexpected responses to fine art. Georgia O’Keefe never saw her art as having sexual overtones. In fact, she balked at the idea. Many critics refused to describe her work any other way and may have done much to fuel her popularity. Ultimately, she stopped trying to thwart the theme and simply painted what she felt, letting the critics say what they would.
It takes a certain courage and humility to embrace such unintended consequences. Surprising results occur in every type of creative medium, whether it be world-renowned art or small business marketing (yes, marketing can be quite creative!). It’s amazing how often I’ve witnessed a negative reaction to something simply because it wasn’t expected. Instead of pausing to see the positive, I’ve heard inarticulate barbed criticisms that are often wrong in their perception. “That’ll never work!” “No one in their right mind would like that!” “That’s not even close to what I envisioned!” They don’t stop long enough to contemplate whether it indeed might be just the right thing. Advertising agencies experience this all the time. A client digs in their heals against a beautiful idea without testing it in the real world, ignoring the fact that the people presenting it probably gave it very careful consideration.
In the world of improvisational comedy, performers often work under a principal known as “Yes, and…” If one actor starts a scene and another enters it, the second actor’s job is to add to the established premise without questioning it. Say, for instance, an improv artist sits in a chair and raises his hands in front of him at ten o’clock and two o’clock as though he were driving. But what is he driving? A car? A tractor? Or could he be flying an airplane? Another performer comes in to the action without asking, “What are you driving?” He takes the idea in a whole new direction: They are both desperately trying to open a hatch on a submarine. A third actor enters and says, “You both know that we’re a thousand feet underwater, right?” And thus is born the beautiful accident.
When collaborating on your next project, I invite you to keep an open mind to your colleagues with a “Yes, and…” approach and allow for the beautiful accident.