How Serendipity Struck!
There are several kinds of serendipity, but they’re all different than “blind” luck of the draw — they’re about creating “smart luck.”
The first is Archimedes Serendipity. This is when you’re looking for a solution to a specific problem and the solution arrives in an unexpected way.
The name comes from the story of how Archimedes solved the problem of King Hiero’s crown. King Hiero was suspicious that his new crown may not be pure gold. So, he called upon Archimedes to come up with a test that would provide an answer.
Archimedes thought it over. And during his brainstorming, he went to the public baths. Here, serendipity struck. Archimedes noticed how the water levels rose as people lowered themselves into the baths.
He quickly realized that different metals displaced different amounts of water. So, all you needed to do was measure how much water gold would displace, and compare that to how much water Hiero’s crown displaced. If they weren’t the same, then the crown wasn’t pure gold, it would be a fake!
The second type of serendipity is Post-It Note Serendipity. This is when a solution is unexpectedly found for a problem that wasn’t even being considered at the time. The name comes from the Post-It note. They were invented when Dr. Spencer Silver, a researcher for 3M, was trying to develop a new type of strong glue. One attempt fell short. It wasn’t very sticky at all. But Silver was curious to discover the potential for this weak glue. It eventually became the perfect ingredient for the Post-It Note.
The third type of serendipity is Thunderbolt Serendipity. As the name suggests, this is when you’re struck by a solution out of nowhere. You weren’t examining any specific problem or researching any particular solution. You were just going about your day when out of the blue an idea and exciting new opportunity presented itself.
Serendipity is usually about connecting dots that have previously remained elusive.
We shouldn’t think of serendipity as a singular event, even if it is one of those thunderbolt experiences. Instead, we should think of it as a process. Often serendipity is the result of seeds that were planted weeks, months, or years in advance. And it always requires something of you — whether it’s noticing a value that hasn’t been seen before, or drawing a conclusion that hasn’t been reached before.
The first things to be aware of when it comes to cultivating the right mindset: being perceptive, curious, open-minded, and eager to see opportunities where others might see only negativity. This also requires an observant and perceptive attitude — the kind that not only notices something unusual, but can connect that bit of information with something else.
Being attuned and alert to serendipity means letting go of ingrained biases.
The first is underestimating the unexpected. This is the kind of attitude where someone believes life is full of the predictable, the boring, and the expected.
The second bias is conforming to the majority. Again, this is a very natural bias to have. It’s safe and comfortable to stick to the majority opinions and ways of doing things. But this can easily lead to a self-censoring herd mentality that isn’t conducive to taking advantage of unexpected developments.
This brings us to the third bias: post-rationalism. A big reason for being skeptical about serendipity is that we tend to look back at an unusual occurrence and spin it into something predictable.
Organizations such as RLabs are good examples of having a serendipity mindset.
RLabs are not trying to impose a fixed way of doing things on the communities they reach out to. Instead, they come up with ways to work with what’s there, even if it’s abandoned garages and drug dealers. For example, those garages can become training centers and former drug dealers are valued for their resourcefulness and networking skills.
The ability the folks at RLabs have for recognizing unexpected value has far-reaching impacts within the communities they work in. Their methods can inspire, empower, and give people some much-needed dignity. It’s pretty much the opposite impression that some fixed-thinking Western organizations make.
To stay alert and motivated, remain focused on a meaningful north star.
There’s a good reason for people wanting to be purpose-driven rather than money-driven: it feels a lot better and is more rewarding in the long run. As she sees it, putting your true values to the side in order to show up for your day job can be exhausting. It takes energy to hide your true self from nine-to-five every day. The better path is to be authentic, stay true to yourself, and find a way to mix purpose with a paycheck.
With your north star in place, your serendipity will always have a purpose — you’ll always have a direction on how to act. So when the unexpected does arise, you’ll be well prepared on how to take advantage of it.
You can increase the chances of serendipity in simple ways.
Serendipity is often the result of converging ideas. It’s the spark of unexpected insight that can occur when you mix separate things like, in the case of DaVinci or Steve Jobs, art and science. So, it stands to reason that serendipity is more likely to occur when you increase the number of ingredients or the number of possible combinations.
Let’s say you’re like the author and you want to get into a good university, even though your grades in high school weren’t stellar, to say the least. Nevertheless, you’re eager to continue learning, so you write a heartfelt essay explaining your dreams of one day making a difference in the world.
Essentially, you want to create possibilities, and you can do this in a number of ways, no matter what your current circumstances are. There are many people who’ve sent out a mass email to everyone in their contact list, or to people they’ve never met, in the hopes of having a serendipitous result. You may be surprised to know how often this works.
There are easy steps for planting the seeds for serendipity to occur.
How did Whittemore turn a volcanic eruption into serendipity? He was prepared, he recognized the opportunity, and he used the tools he had at his disposal to maximize his efforts.
For starters, Whittemore was part of a strong community. In fact, his reason for traveling in the first place was to be part of the Skoll World Forum, an annual event for social entrepreneurs. He was also an active member on Sandbox, the social platform co-founded by the author and intended to bring people together for exciting collaborations and, yes, to increase the potential for serendipitous innovation. He was also familiar with the people who ran the TEDx events, which certainly helped.
In short, Whittemore had a strong and healthy network of diverse people. This kind of network doesn’t need to be massive, but it does need to be regularly maintained. While conferences and online platforms can be good for establishing casual connections, meaningful ones need to be kept in good condition through periodic email
You never know when someone else may notice one of your posts and chime in to provide a thunderbolt moment that could change your life.
Serendipity can take time to develop, so patience is often required.
While having a good supply of diverse people around you can be a vital part of setting the stage for serendipity, it also takes patience and perseverance.
A good example of this is the story of Daniel Spencer. While Spencer had a good job at Apple, his passion was always in photography. Eventually he left Apple in order to pursue photography full-time, setting up a studio called Turn and Shoot Photography.
At first, Spencer was taking traditional high-quality portraits and headshots. But since he had the right mindset for serendipity, he was always curious and observant, looking for unusual signs that may or may not be connected. For example, he noticed that on television and websites there was this trend of rotating photographs that would provide a 360-degree look at things like a new pair of shoes or video game characters.
He was struck by an idea: rotating headshots. He’d had plenty of experience creating actor headshots, and knew that during the audition process, casting directors would often ask actors to turn this way and that. And yet, for some months, he sat with this exciting idea of creating rotating, 360-degree headshots for actors. Like many of us, he was a little scared — what if he went out on a limb with this and it failed?
Then, on Facebook, he saw a promotional contest to win a big, heavy-duty turntable, capable of rotating a standing person. What were the odds? He entered and he won. All the pieces were falling into place. Now he began to test his headshots on friends and reached out to a casting agency that agreed to promote his services on their webpage.
Fostering serendipity involves creating a safe space for the mixing of new ideas from diverse minds.
If serendipity is to occur, it’s going to require the free sharing of ideas.
Many companies are also forgoing the usual hierarchical structure to empower employees and get them to feel comfortable with making their own decisions. This is also a good move for fostering serendipity, as sometimes the window of opportunity for taking advantage of serendipitous moments is fleeting and requires quick action.
Businesses are also taking down the walls that used to exist between different departments, and perhaps no company offers a better example of this than the animation studio Pixar. Understanding that mixing diverse ideas is key to innovation, the studio was purposefully designed to maximize cross-pollination between the three main departments — animators, executives, and computer scientists. Built around a central atrium, it forces these three departments to mix and mingle every day.
Ensuring your employees can interact and share feedback is vital. But it’s also important to listen to the customer. At a Chinese consumer appliance company, it was customer feedback that led to one of the company’s more unusual serendipitous inventions. It discovered that many people were using its dishwashers to clean potatoes, and then complaining about the problems caused by the dirt build-up this created. But instead of advising people against this activity, it was struck with the idea: why not make an automated vegetable cleaner?
Don’t ignore feedback, even if it’s negative. With the serendipity mindset, problems, complaints, failures, and even active volcanoes can be triggers for the most wonderful and creative outcomes.
In a fast-changing world, cultivating serendipity is an active approach to managing uncertainty.
Let’s start with setting serendipity hooks. Setting hooks is all about giving people potential dots to connect with. And to help achieve this, you can change the way you communicate and ask questions, especially via Zoom.
For example, when someone asks you during a virtual conference or Zoom call the dreaded “what do you do?” question, you can give them a number of potential “touchpoints.” You can answer along the lines of “I’ve been working on x, recently been interested in y, and just started exploring z.” This opens up potential “ah, such a coincidence, I just started looking into xyz!” moments.
Next, let’s talk about placing bets — planning spaces for serendipity to occur. Looking for a new job or internship? If you focus on getting a particular job, or doing a particular thing, you restrict your field of possible opportunities or solutions. If you instead look at all potential opportunities that could be available to someone with your skillset — and are open to those unexpected ones that someone might tell you about — that’s where the magic happens. A great way to start this is to work on the side with people you admire. This is a fruitful way to put yourself on their radar — and to “be there” once a position unexpectedly comes up.
Let’s move on to seeding serendipity triggers. One of the best ways to do this is to identify the people you admire the most and whose contact details you could discover publicly via InMail on LinkedIn, homepages, and so on. Send these figures an honest message on how they have already shaped your life and how you would like them to be part of your journey. If you do this a couple of times — in an honest and non-pitchy way — usually people write back. Some of them might be “coincidentally” working on things that overlap with your skillset, knowledge, or projects.
Finally, it’s vital to take the long view. COVID-19 and the related economic turmoil has been a reminder that we cannot plan everything, least of all our careers. But what will really matter 10 years from now? “Bad luck” often depends on when we stop the story. For example, if a job falls through, we need to take the long view. We should attempt to reframe the situation as an opportunity for growth, for reflection, for change, and for developing resiliency.
Optimism. Open-mindedness. Curiosity. Perseverance. Adaptability. These are some of the core qualities of the serendipity mindset. With this mindset, you can seek out and embrace the unexpected and use these unusual moments to make new and exciting connections. When you begin to see the world with this frame of mind, you’ll begin to see that each and every day is filled with the unexpected, and chances to spark new serendipitous ideas and innovations. This holds true for businesses as well. With a few changes to culture and environment, you can begin to set the stage for more innovation and fortuitous events to transpire.
Create a Serendipity Journal.
Preparing a serendipity journal can help you reflect on situations that were unexpected, how you reacted to them, what to do differently next time. It allows you to reflect on how to explore every conversation or meeting — virtual or in real life — as an opportunity for serendipity to happen.
Free up creative space.
You can reflect on your daily routine activities, especially meetings. Which meetings are truly necessary? Do they really need the amount of time they’re allocated? If they’re under your control, can you restructure them to free up creative space?
Get to know your key multipliers.
Have you ever mapped out your network? With pen and paper you can create a visual that can reveal the people in your social circles who are most connected. It may be worth your time to strengthen your own connection with these people.
But it isn’t just about the people in your contact list. Oftentimes, it’s the mailman, teacher, rabbi, yoga instructor, bartender, or hairdresser that carries the most social capital in your community. When’s the last time you said hello and struck up a conversation with these highly connected individuals? Let them know about your projects and there’s always a chance that they know someone else who may hold the key to your next serendipitous occurrence.