Why You Should Prepare For Serendipity

Open yourself to new possibilities and ideas will come flowing.
Foresight Plus, LLC
August 22, 2011

I both love and believe in serendipity—which is defined as the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way.

History is filled with serendipitous discoveries. Let me take two examples:

1. Penicillin

Alexander Fleming was a researcher investigating the properties of staphylococci. It was September 1928 and Fleming was on a holiday with his family. He had stacked all his staphylococci cultures in the laboratory before he went on his vacation. When he returned, he found that there was one culture contaminated by a fungus kind of material and the colonies of staphylococci surrounding this material had been destroyed. The other colonies were normal. Fleming showed this culture to his former assistant Merlin Price who reminded him that that was how he had discovered Lysozyme. Fleming then continued his experiment by growing that mould and confirmed that it produced a substance that killed a number of disease-causing bacteria. He called it "mould juice" for months and in March 1929 he renamed it to Penicillin.

2. Post-it Notes

Spencer Silver, who was working at 3M, was on a quest to find a strong adhesive. One of his creations turned out to be weaker than the ones that 3M had already developed. One could stick it to objects but also easily peel it off. It was definitely not what Silver was looking for, but he didn't discard it. It was four years later, another 3M scientist Arthur Fry found a use for Silver's discovery. Fry wanted something to keep markers in place in a church choir. He used Silver's adhesive and stuck the markers in place. At the end of the event, he lifted the markers easily without damaging either the markers or the books. Voila! 3M now had Post-it Notes, a brand new offering in 1980. The rest is history.

You too have been blessed with serendipity all your life. If you look back, you will find moments (many of them) that were serendipitous and made a huge difference in your life. What you might have missed is that you can plan and prepare for such serendipity.

Here are three things to consider in that regard:

1. Be really open in conversations

Most people do two things in a conversation: 1) continue to pay attention to the parts of the conversation that support what they already believe, and 2) completely ignore the parts of the conversation that don't support their belief. At the end of the conversation, their world remains the same as nothing really changed because of that conversation. They left no room for serendipity. When you are truly open, you are operating in a mood of wonder—allowing yourself a possibility of seeing a new world and hence welcoming serendipity with open arms.

2. Have conversations with people that lift your game

Not only should you be really open during the conversations, you have to be in the right place to have the right conversations with the right people. It is harder than you think. Most people will engage in conversations that are diversions for them from their real work. A handful of them have the capacity and are willing to engage in conversations that will lift your game. The problem? These people are few and they don't have time if you don't make it worth their while. It takes a big investment on your part before you can win the mindshare of people that matter.

3. Create the right building blocks along the way

This is probably the most important, but easily missed strategy. Building blocks are what you can use to create valuable assets—assets that people are willing to pay with time or attention.

Why is this important?

This is important because when you need an asset to put to work, you may not have the time to get all the building blocks together to create that asset. When you don't have the building blocks before hand, you won't miss the "opportunity," you won't even notice that one exists. You would have lost one more opportunity to brush against serendipity. Hence, when you have a lot of right building blocks in place, you are setup to experience serendipity more often.

Image credit: Oce_Technologies

Rajesh Setty is an entrepreneur, author and speaker based in Silicon Valley. He also creates and sells limited-edition prints at Sparktastic. You can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/rajsetty.