The ‘serendipity mindset’: how to make your own luck
“The way Busch sees it, since so much of our lives are influenced by the unplanned and the unexpected, it makes sense to capitalise on these moments.
“Unforeseen events, chance meetings and bizarre coincidences aren’t just minor distractions or specks of grit in our well-oiled lives,” he explains. “The unexpected is often the critical factor – it’s often the force that makes the greatest difference in our lives.”
Even in the rigorous world of scientific research, the power of the unexpected is often at play. “Studies suggest that around 50% of major scientific breakthroughs emerge as the result of accidents or coincidences.”
We wouldn’t, for example, have antibiotics if one of Alexander Fleming’s Petri dishes hadn’t accidentally become contaminated and grown a mould that led to the discovery of penicillin. Another scientist might have cursed and thrown the “ruined” Petri dish in the bin, but Fleming’s curiosity, his “serendipity mindset”, meant it sparked one of the most important medical breakthroughs in history.
Similarly, Viagra, Post-it notes, X-rays, nylon, Velcro, rubber and microwave ovens were all the result, to some extent, of lucky accidents.
And many of the world’s most successful people credit serendipity for a large part of their success. Warren Buffet, Richard Branson, Oprah Winfrey and Arianna Huffington all believe they were lucky.
While these naturally curious people might possess this “serendipity mindset”, any one of us can consciously cultivate it, says Busch.
The first step is simply to build an awareness of the unexpected. “The idea is to see meaning in the unexpected, rather than see it as something anxiety-provoking,” says Busch. This might not be something that comes easily, especially if you’re one of life’s meticulous planners, like Busch himself.
“I’m a German who is used to planning,” he says. “Everything that is unexpected is anxiety-provoking but it helps to reframe it into, ‘Oh that doesn’t need to be a threat’’ There can be something beautiful in the unexpected, even if it doesn’t feel like it in the moment. If we can attune ourselves to the idea that the unexpected can be our ally, we can turn it into something if we connect the dots.”
Of course it’s thrilling when discoveries are sparked in the moment, rather than through laboured planning but what does he mean by “connecting the dots”? “That’s when apparently unconnected events come together in front of you to form a new pattern. Crucially, the insight, the innovation, or new solution to the problem is not what was expected,” says Busch.
It helps if you have laid some groundwork. “Cultivating serendipity is first and foremost about looking at the world with open eyes and seeing opportunities others don’t. It’s not just about being in the right place at the right time and having something happen to us (blind luck), but rather a process in which we can be actively involved.”
Busch gives the example of entrepreneur and blogger Nathaniel Whittemore, stranded unexpectedly in London, in April 2010, after an erupting Icelandic volcano grounded thousands of flights with an ash cloud. While many of us might have done a spot of sightseeing, Whittemore realised he wasn’t the only social entrepreneur stuck in London after the Skoll World forum on Social Entrepreneurship – London was chock-full of exceptional people stranded and twiddling their thumbs. Within 36 hours Whittemore had organised the TEDxVolcano conference, with 200 attendees, world-class speakers, including eBay’s first president Jeff Skoll, and a livestream watched by 10,000 people.”