Most of us think that luck just happens (or doesn’t) but everyone can learn to look for the unexpected and find serendipity
Need to know
Human beings find comfort in certainty. We form governments, make calendars, and create organisations; and we structure our activities, strategies and plans around these constructs. These routines give us the satisfaction of knowing that, by having a plan, there’s a means of it coming to fruition.
But there’s another force, constantly at play in life, that often makes the greatest difference to our futures: the ‘unexpected’ or the ‘unforeseen’. If you think about it, you already look out for the unexpected every day, but perhaps only as a defence mechanism. For example, whenever you use a pedestrian crossing on a busy road, you look out for the unexpected driver who might race through the red light. That ‘alertness’ to, or awareness of, the unexpected is at the centre of understanding the science of (smart) luck and exploiting it to your benefit.
In my research into what makes individuals and organisations fit for the future, one insight has come up again and again: many of the world’s leading minds have developed a capacity, often unconscious, to turn the unexpected into positive outcomes. Developing this ‘serendipity mindset’, as I call it, is both a philosophy of life and a capability that you can shape and nurture in yourself. (Note, while this approach has been successful across many settings, it does need to go hand in hand with tackling the structural inequality related to factors such as race, gender and income.)
You might think of serendipity as passive luck that just happens to you, when actually it’s an active process of spotting and connecting the dots. It is about seeing bridges where others see gaps, and then taking initiative and action(s) to create smart luck. Serendipity is a guiding force in great scientific discoveries but it’s also present in our everyday lives, in the smallest of moments as well as the greatest life-changing events. It’s how we often ‘unexpectedly’ find love, a co-founder, a new job, or a business partner – and it’s how inventions such as Post-it Notes, X-rays, penicillin, microwaves and many other innovations came about.
My research suggests that serendipity has three core characteristics. It starts with a serendipity trigger – the moment when you encounter something unusual or unexpected. Next, you need to connect the dots – that is, observe the trigger and link it to something seemingly unrelated, thus realising the potential value within the chance event (sometimes referred to as a Eureka moment). Finally, sagacity and tenacity are required to follow through and create an unexpected positive outcome. While a particular chance encounter is an event, serendipity is a multifaceted process, as the figure below shows (note that the trigger and connecting the dots often happen at the same time).