Everywhere there are beautiful accidents. — Orson Welles

When it comes to the creative process it can be helpful to differentiate between idea and execution. The idea is the core concept underpinning your movie, short story, music video, commercial, or whatever it is that you’re making. The execution is the way you choose to realize the idea, to make it real. For any one idea there can be a thousand different potential executions.

While the moment of inspiration when the idea hits is magical, mysterious, and beyond explanation, the execution of the idea is a much more rational and methodical process. To make the idea real we have to think practically about how we might achieve it — we have to consider time, space, and money; we have to storyboard and sketch; we have to plan.

Anyone who has been involved in shooting a film or a commercial will know that there is usually an extensive pre-production process. Every detail of the shoot is considered: the cast, the costumes, the locations, the lighting, the lenses. A good director is said to be one who can visualize a scene in their mind’s eye before it has been shot.

Yet while this approach is able to produce consistently good work, on its own it rarely produces anything truly sublime.

A still from the movie Citizen Kane

Orson Welles is often described as one of the greatest directors of all time, and his film Citizen Kane the greatest movie. In the documentary They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, Welles talks about his process. If you’ve watched his films and been witness to scenes like the stunning three-and-a-half-minute single shot that opens Touch of Evil, a masterclass in choreography, you might reasonably assume that Welles would have ascribed his success to meticulous planning and exhaustive pre-production.

However, the opposite is true.

For Welles, “the greatest things in movies are divine accidents… my definition of a film director is the man who presides over accidents… everywhere there are beautiful accidents… they’re the only things that keep a film from being dead. There’s a smell in the air, there’s a look, that changes the whole resonance of what you expected.”

The best creators know that the truly magical moments of creation happen in spite of themselves.

Without a doubt Orson’s success came, in part at least, from his vision, from how he could visualize a movie straight off the script. But what made his work truly exceptional was his capacity to seize upon the accidental, those beautiful and unexpected moments that would lead to something greater than even he had envisaged.

If, in the creative process, you adhere too faithfully to your plan, then you limit your view. You blinker yourself. The best creators know that the truly magical moments of creation happen in spite of themselves.

The artist Frank Auerbach in his studio.

The artist Frank Auerbach appears in a documentary called The Last Art Film. There’s a scene where he describes how the moment in time when a work is realized always brings something the artist couldn’t have anticipated. By way of explanation he draws six ducks very quickly. Each is executed in a second or two. Each consists of a head, a beak, and an eye, nothing more. And Auerbach sets out to make them exactly the same. I’ve recreated this experiment in a page of my own note pad:

A note pad with six quick drawings of a duck’s head

In spite of the artist’s desire for consistency and the conditions of their creation being the same, each duck is different; you could say each duck has a different personality. Duck one is a simple chap, intent on food. Two is a little scared. Three looks rather cocksure and, well, maybe a bit stupid. Four is sad. Five is happy. And six is dopey but lovable.

Being alert to these subtle but substantial accidents gifted to us by the moment of creation defines whether we have the capacity to make work as an artist, or to simply plod along as an artisan, adhering to a long established set of plans.

Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis

By way of a final example, this time from music, I’d like to share with you a story the great jazz pianist Herbie Hancock tells about playing with the arguably even greater jazz trumpeter Miles Davis.

They were performing together on stage in Stuttgart, Germany, in the early 1960s, playing Miles’s classic tune “So What.”

“It was a really hot night. The music was tight, it was powerful, it was innovative. We were having a lot of fun. […] Right in the middle of Miles’s solo, when he was playing one of his amazing solos, […] I played the wrong chord. It sounded completely wrong, a big mistake. I put my hands around my ears. Miles paused for a second and then he played some notes that made my chord right, it made it correct. Which astounded me — I couldn’t believe what I heard. Miles was able to make something that was wrong into something that was right. […] I couldn’t play for about a minute — I couldn’t even touch the piano. What I realize now is that Miles didn’t hear it as a mistake. He heard it as something that happened — just an event — and so, that was part of the reality of what was happening at the moment and he dealt with it. […] That taught me a very big lesson about not only music, but about life.”

Being alert to these subtle but substantial accidents gifted to us by the moment of creation defines whether we have the capacity to make work as an artist, or to simply plod along as an artisan.

If you are a creative professional who is being paid to execute an idea, then you absolutely need a plan. But always keep this in mind: At the moment of creation, fate is almost certainly going to throw something unpredictable at you, an accident beyond your anticipation. How mindful you are of the potential magic of that moment and how you respond to it will define whether your work is simply good or whether it is great.