In the fairy tale “The Three Princes of Serendip”, three sons of a great and powerful king are going through tough times. SPOILER ALERT: it ends well. The main storyline is about a missing camel, and by stumbling on pieces of what seems to be unrelated data while on the road, the brothers successfully recover the animal. With that, their lives are spared and all is good again.
Horace Walpole derived the word “serendipity” from this story. Making discoveries of things you were not looking for.
Quite big inventions are attributed to have been discovered by serendipity instead of a focussed search: penicillin, the post-it note, the microwave, to name a few.
Take penicillin for example: this antibacterial was discovered by Alexander Fleming while cleaning out his laboratory, because he noticed that something had contaminated one of his experiments. This failure resulted in an idea that saved millions of lives.
You can write a book about this topic, but let's limit it to two characteristics of serendipity in this post.
Serendipity is about broadening your perspective
If Fleming would not have been paying attention to his cleaning efforts, he would never have spotted this weird effect that was going on. At any given moment, there are things going on around us that could spark new ideas and new inventions. But, in order to see them, we need to have a broader perspective. You can't make new connections if you're not moving the parts around. We need to play with our building blocks, throw them together and break them apart, and then closely monitor what happens.
You definitely need to get rid of your tunnel vision to come up with a groundbreaking purpose of a failing type of glue (the post-it).
Serendipity is about appreciating the unexpected
I find this one really conflicting with things I like very much: structure and predictability. By eliminating randomness, there is less room for the unexpected. If we accept the fact that often the best ideas appear when we are not looking for them, we need to spend more time not looking.
This is why I think serendipity is, in a way, a skill: you need to be tuned in, all eyes, all ears, in the right position. To be ready to discover what you are not expecting.
Ok, now what?
I do think that there are a couple of things we can start doing to “tune in more” and to accelerate serendipity.
- Change your location. One of the ways to get new ideas is to be confronted with input from the outside. Changing your location will accelerate that. Move to another city. Sit at another desk.
- Show up. Invites to anything are basically tickets to a lottery of ideas.
- Ask more questions. At the core: the more you're open to learn something, the higher the chance that you'll discover something new.