Chance encounters with life-altering content

When I think about the content that has impacted my life the most—the books, music, podcasts, stories, articles, etc. that have shaped my intellectual, emotional, and spiritual life—I’ve come across a lot of it by what feels accidental. And although I don’t truly believe in chance, their intersection with my life can only be described as serendipitous.

There’s the time I found a copy of Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace at the Book Lady bookstore on Oglethorpe Street in downtown Savannah, Georgia. I picked it up and read the first page or so, laughed a bit at the narration, and decided to buy it. A few years later, I dug in my heels and actually read it to cover, and it was one of the most difficult, heartbreaking, and rewarding reads of my life.

And although that sounds like your standard I was just browsing in a bookstore and oh wow I ended up buying a wonderful book experience, the reality is that that purchase was at least two or three years in the making, and it happened only because Wallace was assigned reading in one of my college classes. And even though Wallace was assigned, I hated his work on first read and didn’t discover until much later that I actually enjoyed his writing.

Lots of things had to happen before I ever would have felt inclined to crack the spine on Infinite Jest: 1.) I had to find out about Wallace through class. I don’t know how else I would have found him. 2.) I had to give his work another chance in order to discover that I liked his style.1One of my elementary school teachers taught me that if I didn’t like particular food I should try small amounts and eventually I’d come to like it. I suppose that applies to authors too (but to a degree). And 3.) I had to come across Infinite Jest in person because I probably wouldn’t have been inclined to add that book to my Amazon cart.

Then there is a time that my wife and I had a dinner date at the Social Club on Tybee Island, and we heard a cover of “Heartbeats” performed by Jose Gonzalez. It was one of those songs that totally sets the vibe for the evening even though you can’t really make out the lyrics or much else about it. I knew it sounded familiar, but I couldn’t make the connection to the source.2Under different circumstances, I may have thought to pull out my phone and use the Shazam app to help me identify the song. But then again, I may have stopped using that app by that point. My wife seems to recall that we may have tried the app, but the music was too low and the bar too noisy. Does anyone still remember that app? Anyway, when you’re having a dinner date and the music over the speakers is pulling at your heartstrings and everything around you feels as dramatic as a Rembrandt and you’re seeing the sparkle in your wife’s eyes in the low warm light, your mind isn’t thinking “Hey, let’s figure out what this song is right now.” I can’t remember how I tracked down the song, but I think it involved a bit of spelunking in the Spotify library and my musical memory to get there. Perhaps I listened to the original version by The Knife, found the name of the song, and then searched for the song. Memory fails and the details are fuzzy, but the point is that Jose Gonzalez is now one of my favorite artists.

More recently, I came across a post from Github on LinkedIn about The ReadME Project which sent me down a rabbit hole of listening to The ReadME Project podcast while mowing my lawn this past summer. It was a right place, right time situation. I opened LinkedIn at the right moment, and the right post happed to be right there in my feed. I wasn’t looking for content from Github and the idea of searching to see if they had a podcast was beyond me, but the ReadME Project turned out to be one of my favorite listens from 2023.3Finding good content has a good way of helping you find more good content. Through the ReadME project, I started to understand how many tech companies have their own podcast, and I discovered Compiler from Red Hat, which has been super informative and thought-provoking.

And that’s just three examples. But there’s more

There’s the story about my college pastor and counselor recommending Proper Confidence by Lesslie Newbigin to me after I started asking a bunch of epistemic questions.4Epistemology is the study of knowledge. In a nutshell, it’s asking the question “How do I know what I know?” For someone who cares deeply about what is true, the whole concept of a) knowing things, b) knowing that they’re true, and c) knowing why they’re true is essential. It’s one thing to know something. It’s another to know that you know something, and that what you know is actually grounded in reality, that place where we exist. It’s remained one of my favorite books on epistemology and the nature of faith for about a decade. It helped settle questions I had and even some questions I didn’t know I had.

And there’s the time my worship pastor from Community Bible Church invited me to a year-long book club that was reading Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster, which introduced me to the spiritual disciplines and the heart behind them.

Or search engine queries and blog posts and newsletters that have beamed me across the far reaches of the internet to discover things I didn’t heretofore know about.

I mentioned earlier that I don’t truly believe in chance, so here’s what I really think about this process and phenomenon of serendipitous discovery: I believe God has a way of setting things in my path in the right place, at the right time. He knows what will captivate my attention, sharpen my focus, satisfy my need for information, and shape me in the ways He wants me to be shaped. He knows the writing and music that I’ll enjoy and appreciate. He also knows when a specific blog post or Stack Overflow thread will be the key to unlocking a seemingly intractable work problem. Everything I’ve mentioned has appeared at the moment I needed it, or at the very least when I was in a place to receive it.

I’m always on the search for what’s new and what’s next because I believe there’s more to learn and experience. And the more I seek, the more I find.

Herbig-Haro 45 in the Running Man Nebula” by NASA Hubble is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

  • 1
    One of my elementary school teachers taught me that if I didn’t like particular food I should try small amounts and eventually I’d come to like it. I suppose that applies to authors too (but to a degree).
  • 2
    Under different circumstances, I may have thought to pull out my phone and use the Shazam app to help me identify the song. But then again, I may have stopped using that app by that point. My wife seems to recall that we may have tried the app, but the music was too low and the bar too noisy. Does anyone still remember that app? Anyway, when you’re having a dinner date and the music over the speakers is pulling at your heartstrings and everything around you feels as dramatic as a Rembrandt and you’re seeing the sparkle in your wife’s eyes in the low warm light, your mind isn’t thinking “Hey, let’s figure out what this song is right now.”
  • 3
    Finding good content has a good way of helping you find more good content. Through the ReadME project, I started to understand how many tech companies have their own podcast, and I discovered Compiler from Red Hat, which has been super informative and thought-provoking.
  • 4
    Epistemology is the study of knowledge. In a nutshell, it’s asking the question “How do I know what I know?” For someone who cares deeply about what is true, the whole concept of a) knowing things, b) knowing that they’re true, and c) knowing why they’re true is essential. It’s one thing to know something. It’s another to know that you know something, and that what you know is actually grounded in reality, that place where we exist.
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