Cultivating Deus Ex Machina
How a cheap plot device can bring magic to our lives.
Have you experienced a breakthrough, ah-ha moments, and lucky breaks? I lump all of these under a single term: Deus Ex Machina.
Deas Ex Machina is Latin for “god from the machine.” It represents an improbable event that works out well for the protagonist in a story. Sadly, it has a bad reputation. While it might imply a lack of imagination for storytellers, cultivating Deus ex Machina can be life-changing for any real-life protagonist. I believe there are ways to increase the occurrence of these unlikely events.
In storytelling, Deus Ex Machina is considered a cheap plot device. It’s often used to get characters out of an impossible situation and resolve the plot in a story. In Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark, in a wild turn of events, the ark of the covenant brings God's wrath and kills all the Nazis at the last minute. In Lord of the Flies, a navy officer rescues the children on the island right before inescapable chaos. This is generally considered lazy writing since the writers can swoop in and “fix” the ending to a story with a bit of magic so that the plot can be tied together nicely.
Plenty of random Deus Ex Machina events “just happen.” For instance, a surprise inheritance from a long-lost Uncle with no children. But I’m talking about more tangible things that might look like pure luck from the outside.
These might show up as big actions socially, such as:
landing a dream job first thing after school
speaking at a major conference in your field
One of the creations you’ve shared is going viral online.
Getting a book published
selling a company for millions of dollars
But I also love personal Deus Ex Machina:
The Ah-ha moment in grokking a technical concept
Hacking on an idea until it works and what you thought about now exists.
Discovering something new and profoundly true about the universe that changes one of your core operating philosophies (very rare but deeply satisfying)
Are we just left to the fates to decide when we get lucky breaks? Or is there something we can do? While I don’t think we can force unlikely events to happen, I do believe there are actions we can take to cultivate being able to act on improbable events.
You can’t get lucky if you don’t roll the dice. So put yourself in low-risk, high-reward situations. If you want to meet people, you must spend more time around new people. If you're going to get that “ah-ha moment, " you must spend more time exposing yourself to challenging topics. Some “lucky breaks” are just a numbers game; you must put in the time.
Engage with others
Of course, there are many things in life that you have no control over and you can’t accomplish no matter how hard you try. I read a great book on this topic a few months ago that shook me. In Who Not How (affiliate link1), they illustrate how the “I’ll do it myself” mentality is a self-limiting belief and how engaging with others can unlock nearly limitless potential. Why limit what is possible in your life with only your imagination? Why you can tap into the creativity of other people as well? If you have a vision, engaging with others takes the concept of “embrace randomness” and adds parallel processing to the mix.
Tinker on things that bring you joy
Tinkering is a topic I love bringing up in this newsletter, but it’s a powerful driver of Deus Ex Machina. Tinkering is all about sorting through deeply technical things that bring your joy. It doesn’t have to be a physical thing, either. You might have the mental image of an amateur furniture maker spending hours with hand tools in the garage crafting a beautiful piece of handmade furniture. Or maybe an engineer is building a robot in their lab. To me, tinkering is much broader than that. You can tinker with an idea. Writers, mathematicians, and physicists do this all the time. To tinker is to spend time exploring and experimenting for its own sake. I’ve found that what I learn while tinkering tends to bleed over into my other work and helps me grow in novel and surprising ways that I could plan for.
Deus Ex Machina is a fascinating and powerful thing. While we can’t force these magical moments to happen, we can cultivate environments for them to positively impact our lives. Putting yourself in a position that facilitates these serendipitous events is fun. We won’t get Deus Ex Machina most days, but when they happen, our life’s trajectory shifts in ways we never could have imagined before.
This Week’s Notable Links
Filippo Valsorda’s writing on cryptography is some of my favorites, and his latest post is no exception. Here he outlines a wishlist of features in a modern cryptographic standard he wishes existed (and so do I, it sounds nice).
Last week and dear friend of mine shared his favorite James Mickens paper with me. I was ashamed that I hadn’t followed his work, though I realized I had seen his speaking online. I stumped upon his 2018 USENIX keynote and was floored by how pertinent it is to this moment in time related to AI and ML. If you enjoy that I also recommend checking out Blockchains are a Bad Idea
I know very little about three.js, but this blog post opened my eyes to the project and gave me a glimpse into what its like to develop in it and its fascinating.