Serendipity is when stuff happens in a beneficial way, by chance or happy accident. If it’s Lady Luck that makes all good things come to pass, wouldn’t it be a cunning plan to create more opportunities for her to do her thing?
In the creative process of life and business, serendipity is the currency of making good use of happen stance, of grabbing onto the shirttails of chances flowing passed, of hailing possibilities and wrestling potential to the touchline. It is taking advantage of the faintest whiff of something hot. Your creative radar must be on high alert at all times and you must grow antennae from your forehead so as not to miss the slightest opportunity.
We use our intuition and imagination to chase serendipity and that way we make our discoveries and prepare for creativity, for as John Cleese once put it “Creativity is not a talent, it is a way of operating.” Serendipity isn’t fairy dust and magic bestowed upon the worthy, it is the gatepost between awareness and action. It is a method of searching, scanning, questioning, uncovering, scavenging and being ready to recognize gold when it shines up through the dirt.
Although we cannot deliberately evoke that will-o’-the-wisp, chance, we can be on the alert for it, prepare ourselves to recognize it and profit by it when it comes. Merely realizing the importance of chance may be of some help to the beginner. We need to train our powers of observation, to cultivate that attitude of mind of being constantly on the look-out for the unexpected and make a habit of examining every clue that chance presents. Discoveries are made by giving attention to the slightest clue. That aspect of the scientist’s mind which demands convincing evidence should be reserved for the proof stage of the investigation. In research, an attitude of mind is required for discovery which is different from that required for proof, for discovery and proof are distinct processes.[…]A good maxim for the research man is ‘look out for the unexpected.’ The Art of Chance-Opportunism in creativity and scientific discovery. 1957 Guide. By Cambridge University animal pathology professor W.I.B Beveridge.
Think of the opportunities that have come your way, often primarily by some chain of tenuous, circumstantial connections, or a seemingly random sequences of events. But they arise as a result of you getting in the way of them. It’s unlikely they would have come knocking if you were glued to your sofa. Of course it is not a foolproof approach to the business of life, or life in business and there is a certain lack of control and need for faith involved, but the benefits, if you can hold your nerve are manifold.
Mingling with strangers, listening, talking about what lights your fire is the fertilizer for finding connections and chances. It’s about having the right attitude, attracting, approaching and interacting with people from all walks of life, so that you have more chance of meeting the ones that offer serendipitous opportunities. You then funnel what you discover into the hard work of applying what you have learned into something transformative. It’s an adventure that requires you to be fully engaged and energized. It requires you to have background knowledge, to be inquisitive, to think creatively, to ensure you have the right tools or resources to make the most of the opportunity and it needs good timing.
Interestingly, channeling physical space has an impact on serendipity. Forcing people together in smaller, narrower spaces encourages a collision of conversation, creativity and collaboration. Designs for Google Inc. ‘s new headquarters, expected to be completed in 2015, set out to maximize casual employee conversations, which the firm says were responsible for innovations such as Gmail and Street View. “We want it to be easy [for] Googlers to collaborate and bump into each other,” says a Google spokeswoman. Attempts to engineer space for serendipitous reasons isn’t completely new; innovator Steve Jobs famously designed the Pixar headquarters with central toilets so that people from around the company would run into each other.
So we get in the way of each other and of our work, we keep showing up, we keep all our senses peeled, we keep energized and curious and every once in a while the serendipitous opportunity makes its grand entrance. And then we make sure we turn chance into action or the fleeting phenomenon will disappear in a puff of smoke.
America in the 1830s was in the grip of “rubber fever”; factories had sprung up to meet the demand for goods made from this waterproof gum. But the craze ended abruptly – rubber froze hard in the winter and melted to glue in the summer.
Bankrupt, self-taught chemist Charles Goodyear spent years trying to make rubber more durable. In 1839 he was showcasing his latest experiment and dropped the rubber mixture on a hot stove. When it dried, it was a charred leather-like substance with an elastic rim. It was still rubber but had transformed: it was vulcanised, or weatherproof. Goodyear insisted it wasn’t an accident, and that the hot-stove incident held meaning only for the man “whose mind was prepared to draw an inference”.
Sadly, Goodyear didn’t reap the benefits of his discovery and died $200,000 in debt. Vulcanised rubber is still in use today, notably in car tyres. Samira Shackle writes in the New Humanist.
Science, art and innovation has long tapped into the chance happening but something else is occurring on the back of contemporary digital life. In “Chance” on Radio 4 series in Digital Human series Aleks Krotoski explored serendipity and whether it can be systemized. She describes chance as a confluence of connections, seeing something that allows you to make a leap, as Newton did of Gravity when he watched fruit falling from a tree. But how to capture, wrangle, tame and control it for our own ends. Can it be bottled, sold and exploited? Online, can we force search into guaranteed discovery by turning it into a system? Google are trying to engineer it, make a programmable version of it, but surely serendipity is like trying to grab a bubble. It’s the Holy Grail, it “reels you in with its magic”, it’s ephemeral and shifting. Can you define it, can it be predictable?
It is life or information throwing up a surprise, that we must latch onto. Punch in the wrong word linked with a thought or a question, in a Search Engine and see where it takes you. Follow it all the way through. When you think you have your answer, keep probing. This avoids the smoothing out of information retrieval, keeps it spiking, which allows you to snatch at something unexpected in a fresh and delightful way. On Facebook we are friends with people who share similar interests and passions; so in order to encourage happy accidents, we need to step out of that circle and hear other voices rather those just reflecting our own. We need to seek out new voices. Put in an imagined past or interests and fish for the unexpected. A search engine will provide you what you want to know but we need to be exposed to surprises. Don’t be captivated by what Google and Amazon channels for us. Be a search engine anarchist.
The computer is perfectly placed to connect one thing to the next but it is the insight and value added to the connection that is what captures and exploits Chance. And that is ultimately an exclusively human capability; our creativity and tenacity to follow through on the serendipitous promise. It is the brain synapse that sparks and says, here is something that I can use. It is only when Artificial Intelligence nails that ability that it has the possibility to harness serendipity.
In the meantime, be human. Follow a hunch, change places, take timeout, wallow in daydreams, scribble & doodle, go for a walk, have a long shower, let go of control. Make space in the hustle and bustle of daily life and slowdown. Stop and smell the roses. Drop everything that is routine in your life, find new encounters and discover new things. Notice the small stuff. Look up from your smart phone, take your head phones off, smile, do a random act of kindness. Surf life for serendipity, paddle out and in the right moment catch the wave and there the magic happens.
“Chance favours the prepared mind” Louis Pasteur
Need help slowing down, letting go and opening yourself up to new experiences? Finding our more about working with me as your Creative Coach. Lou@createlab.co.uk
Follow my daily inspirational Picture Posts on Twitter @createlab Instagram create_lab and Facebook Lou Hamilton