Vector drawing by Myriam Thyes after Sophie Taeuber-Arp’s Grasse – Geometric and wavy lines (1940). Courtesy Wikimedia
Most of us think that luck just happens (or doesn’t) but everyone can learn to look for the unexpected and find serendipity
by Christian Busch
Vector drawing by Myriam Thyes after Sophie Taeuber-Arp’s Grasse – Geometric and wavy lines (1940). Courtesy Wikimedia
teaches at the London School of Economics and at New York University, where he directs the Global Economy programme of the Center for Global Affairs. He is a co-founder of Sandbox Network, an international community of young innovators, and Leaders on Purpose, an organisation convening high-impact leaders. A member of the World Economic Forum’s Expert Forum and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, he is also the author of The Serendipity Mindset (2020).
Edited by Christian Jarrett
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).
To be lucky, it’s often essential to be open and alert to the unexpected. Consider an entertaining experiment that the British psychologist Richard Wiseman carried out for a BBC TV show some time ago, which involved just two people: one who saw himself as ‘lucky’, and one who identified herself as ‘unlucky’. The researchers asked both participants to take separate trips to a coffee shop outside which they’d placed a £5 note on the pavement. Inside, someone posing as a successful businessman sat at the table by the counter. The ‘lucky person’ approached, spotted the money and picked it up. Inside, he ordered a coffee, sat next to the businessman and struck up a conversation with him. The self-described ‘unlucky’ person, on the other hand, failed to notice the money or talk to the businessman. Later, the researchers asked both participants how their day had been. The ‘lucky’ person reported having had a great day – he’d found money in the street, and made a new friend (who might lead him to additional opportunities). Meanwhile, the ‘unlucky’ person described her day as uneventful. So, although both participants had the same chances, only one was able to ‘see’ them.
Such an experiment – while lighthearted – shows that your mindset, and how you think about possibility in your life, can affect your ability to be alert when opportunity occurs. In fact, the terms ‘unexpected’, ‘extraordinary’ and ‘unlikely’ are misleading because accidents or coincidences happen all the time. But we must be able to see the opportunity in the moment.
Although being alert to the unexpected is vital for creating smart luck, there is another key factor: preparation. This is partly about removing the barriers to serendipity, both mental (your mindset) and physical (the spaces you live and interact in), such as: overloaded schedules; senseless meetings; and the inefficiencies throughout your day that rob you of time, curiosity and a sense of joy. You can prepare by strengthening your mental readiness to connect with opportunity, and creating an environment that enables the use of your skills and available resources to act on the moment. An unprepared mind often discards unusual encounters, thereby missing the opportunities for smart luck. But this is a learned behaviour. Preparation is about developing the capacity to accelerate and harness the positive coincidences that show up in life. In this Guide, I will show you the basics of how to do this.
Recognise and challenge your biases
Our habits of thought and preconceptions about the world can make it difficult to spot or harness serendipity. They shape our behaviour and how we interact with the world. There are three major biases that will require the most attention to overcome if we’re to effectively cultivate serendipity: underestimating the unexpected; hindsight bias; and functional fixedness.
Underestimating the unexpected. It’s natural to underestimate the unexpected, but when you do, you tune out opportunities to create smart luck. Yes, it’s unlikely that, on the day of your big presentation, Zoom crashes. It’s unlikely that the person who was supposed to evaluate your presentation gets sick. It’s unlikely that you spill coffee over your laptop right before the presentation. But add up all these unlikely events, and it becomes relatively likely that something unexpected might happen. Experienced presenters will often have a joke for when things go wrong – knowing that, often, they do – which tends to bring the audience over to their side as they appear to be quick on their feet and comfortable sharing their humanness. The same logic applies to all the good things that can happen throughout the day. Only once we accept that the unexpected happens all the time do we start ‘seeing’ it (like the ‘lucky’ person who spotted the money planted on the street in the experiment above) – and begin to view it as a potential benefit or opportunity rather than a threat.
Hindsight bias. When we construct stories of past events, we often act as if there was a linear trajectory, even though reality most probably followed a squiggly path. This can lead us to perceive events as having been more predictable than they were (known as ‘hindsight bias’), and to construct narratives that conveniently explain everything, ignoring the role of chance. This post-rationalisation speaks to our human need to find familiarity in the unknown, and to control anomalies. However, if you continually airbrush the many unexpected events out of your (hi)stories, you’ll miss the importance of the unpredictable parts and therefore fail to recognise – let alone legitimise – the critical role that serendipity will play in your future.
Functional fixedness. Whenever we use a tool in everyday life, we’re so accustomed to its usual specific function that we’re often unable to see its usefulness in other contexts – a bias known as ‘functional fixedness’. Similarly, research has shown that individuals who are familiar with specific problem-solving strategies are unlikely to devise simpler ones, even if and when it could be appropriate. In other words, we tend to do many things out of habit – we’ll often persist with ‘the hard way’ simply because it’s the way we already know. Having the mental agility to improvise, to see how a tool could be used in a new way, is essential to building your serendipity mindset. Think of fictional characters, such as Lara Croft or James Bond, and how – thanks to their quick-wittedness – they manage to turn any ordinary object into a deadly weapon. While this is a Hollywood cliché, we’re nonetheless impressed by these characters because we recognise their talent and resourcefulness … and perhaps how unlikely we might have been to think of that solution when faced with their predicament. Your own creativity will thrive when you abandon the physical and mental tools with which you’re most familiar, and find new ways to work or think.
Cultivate your serendipity mindset
As well as challenging your innate biases and making a conscious effort to think beyond your usual models or fixed ways of thinking, there are many more practical steps you can take to help develop or strengthen your serendipity muscle. Here are four. Together, they’ll help you identify the clutter in your life, clean it up and create space for serendipity; forge more connections; and see opportunity in crisis.
Get in the habit of journalling. If you are new to journalling, don’t overthink it. Set a timer for two minutes, then list out in two columns the parts of your day that led to positive outcomes and the parts of the day that did not. As you break down your day into these segments, examine the parts that worked really well for you, and the ones that were inefficient, stressful or unfulfilling. You might begin to notice some patterns that stand out, for good or bad. Journalling and reflection is a way to begin decluttering your life, to explore the areas that take you out of being present, and keep you from recognising serendipity. Sometimes, it’s the seemingly small and insignificant nuisances that can deplete your energy and alertness the most.
Declutter your life. Once you discover one of these patterns, start detailing the decisions and related information for why it doesn’t work well. Ask yourself: ‘Based on which assumption or belief did I make this decision or choose to do things this way?’ and ‘What would influence me to decide or act differently? What could I do instead?’ For some people, it’s as simple as getting up 10 minutes earlier.
We lead unique and complex lives. If you clean up the minutiae, they’ll no longer take up space in your daily life, and you’ll have more cognitive, emotional and physical attention to dedicate to the more important stuff. So, wipe out your ‘to do’ lists. Pay the bills if you can, replace the burned-out lightbulb, catch up with doctors’ visits and teeth cleanings (as soon as it’s safe to do so again, post-COVID-19). You could even subscribe to a meal plan to save you time and money on eating out. When you stop procrastinating and these mundane things are finally taken care of, they will no longer take up headspace. You’ll enhance your ability to be observant, present, inspired and curious, all of which will have a profound impact on building your serendipity muscle.
Carve out ‘me time’. Serendipity is a process. It’s an opportunity to turn chance into good fortune through your own efforts, which doesn’t always happen in a flash. It often requires an incubation period. Be patient, knowing that some of your efforts could result in an immediate spark while others will be more like planting seeds, for which the fruits of your labour will pleasantly surprise you in the future. In the interim, respecting your time every day is a critically important habit. Making a schedule for yourself – and protecting your ‘me time’ – will give you space to manage your focus, interests and creative energies. Treat this time like a business meeting with yourself. Block it out in your calendar and use it to create, write or envelope yourself in an area that excites you.
Employ daily serendipity practices. There are simple tools that can further help you notice, maximise and exploit serendipity in your daily life. For example, there’s the ‘serendipity hook strategy’ (whenever you meet someone new, cast a few hooks – concrete examples of your current interests, hobbies and vocation, thus maximising the chance you and the other person will latch on to common ground and shared passions, triggering serendipity). Similarly, you could practise asking questions differently (eg, ‘What are you most interested in at the moment?’ instead of ‘What do you do?’), which will again maximise the opportunity for serendipitous connection.
Finally, try ‘reframing’ mistakes, challenges and setbacks as opportunities. For instance, I used to beat myself up over a misjudged investment decision, yet I came to realise that the experience had taught me a lot and helped guide many of my future decisions. Similarly, a company I co-founded got off to an inauspicious start when funding dried up in the wake of the 2008 financial crash, but the team managed to turn this to our advantage – we dropped our initial plans to create a huge global conference and instead launched a hub-based model involving small community meet-ups. What appeared to be ‘bad luck’ in the moment turned into ‘good luck’ by reframing the situation, leading to a close-knit global community.
The willingness and motivation to engage in activities that nurture serendipity is driven by traits such as curiosity and proactivity. In particular, taking initiative and practising forethought can help put us into situations where serendipity can happen.
Maximising your chances for serendipity is partly a numbers game. If you’re in touch with 100 people, and they each are in touch with 100 other unique connections, you’re essentially in second-degree contact with 10,000 people. Being more extraverted helps here in a number of ways, including by meeting large numbers of people, by attracting people, and by keeping in touch with people. This starts with simple steps such as chatting with someone in a supermarket or in the coffee shop queue. Extraverted people are often easier to get to know and they tend to keep in touch with larger numbers of people.
This raises the question – how does serendipity work if you are a cautious introvert? First off, personality isn’t set in stone: it’s possible to act more extraverted if you want to, when the situation calls for it. Whether you’re a natural extravert or an introvert, you can cultivate your willingness to take risks, experiment and engage with others. Wiseman found that people who self-identified as lucky used more open body language (such as fully facing the other person in conversation), made more eye contact and smiled twice as often as ‘unlucky’ people, all of which made others trust them and feel more ‘attracted’ to them. These are conversational skills that you can learn, thus boosting your chances for serendipity. So, start by looking for small ways that you can engage with strangers. It might feel uncomfortable at first, but that’s often where the magic happens.
It’s also important to recognise that there’s a major role for introverted behaviour in serendipity. While extraverts might benefit from their outgoing behaviour, serendipity often requires inward focus, self-awareness and time. For those of us who identify more as introverts, you don’t need to be an extravert to have a propensity for serendipity. The most unexpectedly valuable associations can come from areas that aren’t obvious to us (for example, coming across an old book in a bookshop that triggers the idea for a new podcast). These ‘calm sources’ often lead to serendipity. What’s more, different personalities complement one another. If you’re the strongest introvert on your team, know that you could be key to unlocking serendipity for your more garrulous colleagues, helping them to reflect upon and connect their thoughts and experiences.
My book The Serendipity Mindset: The Art and Science of Creating Good Luck (2020) is the first comprehensive science-based approach on how to cultivate serendipity – ‘smart luck’. I expand on the ideas and exercises in this Guide, drawing on my decade-long experience as a researcher, entrepreneur, business consultant and university educator.
In this online talk for the American Psychological Association from 2020, I discussed how the science of serendipity can help turn uncertainty into opportunity.
In this article for the World Economic Forum, I showed how new business models and opportunities are emerging in the wake of COVID-19 uncertainty.
In this article for LSE Business Review, Harry Barkema, a professor of management, and I discuss how, in the context of extreme resource constraints, reframing is possible – and what we can learn from social entrepreneurs in Sub-Saharan Africa.
In this article for the Harvard Business Review, I explain how to set ‘serendipity bombs’ and cast ‘serendipity hooks’ in order to cultivate serendipity.
The Serendipity Society is a network of researchers examining the complexities of serendipity. They have helped to create a platform to develop serendipity research as an independent field of study, and their website includes an expanding list of serendipity-related publications and other resources.