Carpe diem: on spontaneity

The best things in life happen by accident. Or, at least, partially by accident … to those who are open to opportunity and change.

vladLast Sunday I was wandering around old Bucharest when I happened on the remains of Vlad Tepes’ old castle. It’s a fascinating place, and as I wandered around, checking it out, I struck up a conversation with Radu, part of a troupe of medieval revivalists who put on demonstrations of medieval arts and warfare at the site.

Vlad Tepes, as you probably know, is better known to North Americans as Dracula, and he was an integral figure in fighting off the Turks and helping the region we now know as Romania win its freedom.

For whatever reason, the show didn’t go off that evening, but Radu and I kept chatting. After a while, he offered to give me some lessons in medieval longsword fighting. Hardly believing my luck, I jumped at the chance and spent the next hour learning how to attack and how to defend myself with a 5-kilo training sword.

raduI learned the standard defensive and offensive postures … he taught me the basic arm and upper body techniques for defense, and a couple of different options for offense.

It was hot and we were both sweating profusely by the end, but this was just about the most incredible and wonderful experience of my whole trip.

I also learned that a swordsman never touches the blade of his sword with his bare hand, as the oils and sweat of your skin can corrode the blade. That lesson was rammed home when I inadvertently touched the side of my blade with my hand after a few ringing slashes and parries, and got a piece of Romanian steel inserted under my skin … which I had to dig out with a needle the next day.

steelOn every single trip I’ve made (and it’s got to be close to a hundred by now) I’ve had the most amazing experiences by first learning a bit about the location, thinking of a couple of possible things to do before I even get on the airplane, and then completely going with the flow when I’m actually there.

The pre-work ensures I don’t miss anything that’s an absolutely must-see (from my perspective, not some guidebook), and forms a basic background of knowledge about the destination. Then, when I’m actually on the trip, I have some backstory, some clue, as to what might be a great experience or not. But it can all go in the fire if something that appears better in the moment turns up.

The reality is that you can’t plan for your moods, for who you meet, for the weather, or any of a hundred other factors that play into what will be the most amazing opportunity. So planning a trip – or a project – extensively and sticking to the plan robotically is a waste of time.

I think it was Clauswitz (and if I had internet connection on this airplane I’d verify it) who said, “In battle, planning is essential, and plans are useless.”

I think that’s true about a lot of things in life.


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