Luck plays an unusually large part in any success story — just skimming through a few bestselling biographies will reveal how much people attribute their success to a "break", a "chance meeting" or a "bumping into" encounter.
An unsought, unintended and/or unexpected, but fortunate, discovery and/or learning experience that happens by accident.
A combination of events which are not individually beneficial, but occurring together produce a good or wonderful outcome.
Serendipity is often portrayed as just luck — a happy accident that occurs at random. There is a case, however, that by having a prepared mind, you'll be likely to find more of it. Let's explore that a little.
Serendipity Isn't Luck
The word "serendipity" was first coined by Thomas Walpole, an 18th Century British diarist, who wrote about the Persian story of The Three Princes of Serendip (now Sri Lanka), in which three princes went on a journey "making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of…"
It was only some time later, after his writings were published in the mid 19th Century, that the meaning we now attribute to the word began to be applied. In the process, one thing seems to have been lost in translation from his original observation that I think still stands true: Sagacity was involved — a word that has roots in seeking, being observant, wise, and keen. And because luck is just random, it's this side of serendipity that I want to discuss: chance favours the prepared mind. Serendipity isn't luck.
How to Accelerate Serendipity
Is it possible to increase the chances of beneficial, happy accidents to occur? Can you accelerate serendipity? For the last few years, I've been trying, and I've bumped into a few principles along the way.
Just Show Up
We all get invited to things. When I receive an invitation there's always a temptation to say "oh gosh, it's going to be so much effort to get there, I think I have to decline," or "I'm not really sure what the benefit of attending this is — I think I'll pass."
A couple of years ago I was awarded a place in one of those Important List of Young People Who'll Probably Be More Important in the Future lists — you know the kind of thing. The thing is, I was broke. My bank account was empty and I was down to my last handful of cash. To get to the event I'd be using it to pay for a train ticket. It was probably slightly crazy but I spent my last penny to go to a party where a bunch of the other people from the list would be. I didn't know what I would find there, but I was determined that it would be a room full of opportunity. It was. On the way out I briefly chatted to someone who I would go on to found a company with.
If I hadn't gone to that party that wouldn't have happened. Just show up became a rule, and it can be applied to any kind of event or invitation — even things you're not invited to.
Put Yourself in the Right Place
Location, location, location. If you want to bump into people who are relevant to what you want to achieve, put yourself right in the middle. For my new company we wanted to be right in the middle of the London startup scene, so that meant being as close as possible to the famous Silicon Roundabout of Tech City, East London. The bumping-into-ness factor around our studio is way higher than anywhere else in London for the kind of thing we're doing.
For you, it might be basing yourself at a research park, or taking a desk at a co-working space, or moving to a different city where there's a higher density of people doing the thing you want to do. Whatever it is, pay attention to the serendipity factor.
When you're working, take a break occasionally. You can't work all hours of the day, and bumping into other people is an important factor in making whatever it is that you're doing a success. Step away from the desk occasionally, get out, speak to people, and just show up.
So what is the opposite of Serendip, a southern land of spice and warmth, lush greenery and hummingbirds, seawashed, sunbasted? Think of another world in the far north, barren, icebound, cold, a world of flint and stone. Call it Zembla. Ergo: zemblanity, the opposite of serendipity, the faculty of making unhappy, unlucky and expected discoveries by design.
Say "Yes, And..." Instead of "Yes, But..."
This is such a simple thing to try. Any time someone gives you a suggestion, and you feel yourself thinking of playing the devils' advocate, stop. Starting a sentence with "yes, but" is a surefire way to close down an opportunity — try to think about the other person's idea or statement and see what you could add. Start with "yes, and…" and go from there! It's a principle from the world of improv, and I'm often surprised by the happy accidents that result from a simple suggestion to someone.
Keep Your Eyes Open for Opportunity
To paraphrase that famous mis-attributed saying, it's easy to miss an opportunity if it sounds like hard work. Pay attention to things around you, and you just might find something that, yes, would be hard work, but then whoever made anything of any impact that wasn't?
Use Serendipity Engines
Twitter, blogging, all of those social media things that people always talk about — frame them as "serendipity engines." I'm not great at using that stuff — I'm mainly just on Twitter, but the rate of bumping-into-ness is radically increased the more you use these things, or so I've found. By sharing your thoughts online you become more bump-into-able. Because these things are running all day long, I think of them as engines of serendipity that generate a background hum of opportunity.
Don't Be Too Precious with Your Ideas
A zemblanitous trend is, when meeting someone, to ask them to sign a non-disclosure agreement about what it is you're about to discuss. By design, it's a tool that people use to keep a lid on their idea. If you've really got something great, and a patent in the pipeline then, sure, I can understand why you want to keep it private. But I've decided not to sign NDAs any more — it's hard to remember what you're supposed to know about, and after operating under one for over a year (!) I've seen the zemblanitous effect it has on you and the people around you.
Help Other People to Have Serendipity
I tried an experiment — publishing my "free/busy" diary using Doodle. The idea was that people could request a coffee and suggest a time, and reduce the friction in the process. The trouble is, I found that my days were getting a bit chopped up by having coffee with people. It was impacting my other work, so I've had to reduce that. Instead, I've started hosting dinners where I invite the people I would have liked to have had coffee with recently.
It's useful for the people who attend and fun for me — we all get to meet a bunch of interesting people, as well as having a cocktail or two afterwards. By building in some time into my diary for serendipity I'm hoping to make interesting connections happen, for me and for others. There's much more you could do here — hosting a regular meetup for your peers, for instance.
Get Good at Introductions
And while I'm on that "help other people have serendipity" point, I've been trying to get better at the fine art of making introductions. Every week I probably make a couple of introductions between people I think should know each-other. It's a simple format:
Intro: Anne, meet Bob
Hi guys, I thought I'd make an introduction because (reason). Anne, Bob is (reason for relevance) and (how I know him / he's amazing). Bob, Anne is (reason for relevance) and (how I know her / she's ace). I hope something good happens because of this intro! (Etc.)
Answer "But Why?" with "I Don't Know Yet"
A couple of weeks ago I went to an art hack with the theme of making things out of data in a weekend. I made something called Cryptographics, that lets you encrypt text and represent it as a graphic that you can wear on a t-shirt, sew into a quilt, make into a print for your wall, and much more. A few people asked me "but why?" And I could flippantly reply "because art," but more accurate would be to say "I don't know yet."
Undirected play and experimentation is something we tend to lose as we become adults. I've made my rule "create something every day," and one of the side effects of that is that I've been doing lots of little experiments as a result. From each of them I end up having interesting conversations, and that's possibly a way of rationalising doing playful things. You get to meet people, and in my opinion, the best networking is done whilst talking about things other than work.
A Final Word
There is an obvious danger that you can get distracted from your work by trying too hard to do open-ended things that don't have an immediate benefit. But also, if you have too little opportunity for serendipity — that zemblanitous state — then you'll end up stuck in a rut. The answer is to find a goldilocks zone where it's not too much and not too little.
Accelerating Serendipity [Medium]