Professor doctor Christian Busch teaches at New York University and at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He's the author of Connect the Dots: The Art and Science of Creating Good Luck.
Every day, as we venture out into the world, we may be confronted with unexpected and ‘lucky’ encounters. Sometimes it's ‘blind luck’, like being born into a loving family. But luck strikes randomly and without warning, and tends to fall outside of our ability to control or predict.
Fortunately, however, we don't have to rely on blind luck to create or find value. We can, in fact, take measured steps to cultivate ‘smart luck’ instead. In the process, we can train ourselves to tap into an unrealized goldmine of value-generating opportunities and lay the groundwork for serendipity.
Over my decade-long research, I've found that some of the world's most inspiring leaders, from CEOs to thought pioneers, have consciously or subconsciously laid the foundations for such conditions. These individuals have been able to build a muscle for the unexpected; they can leverage the power of unforeseen encounters and events to create value and reveal new opportunities. But this ability isn't innate or unique to these skilled individuals. Anyone can take the steps required to orient themselves on a path towards fostering and capitalizing on serendipity – and discovering the value of the unexpected.
One strategy, useful in both the physical and virtual worlds, is to approach conversations and interactions from a different perspective. When making an introduction, for instance, avoid the bland and ubiquitous ‘What do you do?’ because it almost always boxes the other person into a spiral of meaningless small talk. Instead, opt for something more engaging by incorporating unique hooks into your exchange. The basis of these hooks could vary from personal hobbies to professional interests, but they can help by allowing the other person to latch on to an area of shared mutual interest. Questions such as ‘What do you enjoy spending time on?’ or ‘What do you find most interesting about this project?’ can help to guide conversation in unexpected and serendipitous ways.
Likewise, hooks can be placed when answering questions. When confronted with common questions, choose uncommon answers. When asked the dreaded ‘What do you do?’ for instance, answer with something like: ‘I enjoy traveling and connecting with people, but I'm really passionate about seeking out efficiencies.’ Injecting a succinct but wide range of ideas and interests maximizes the potential for coincidental overlaps – you encourage the other person to connect the dots. From this, there can emerge unexpected but meaningful friendships or valuable new insights – in short, the very essence of serendipity.
Reflect on incidences when serendipity could have happened, but didn't. Perhaps you were sitting in a meeting and had an unexpected idea, but didn't raise it. Maybe you were at a conference and had a pressing question for a speaker you unexpectedly bumped into, but you didn't ask it. What was it that held you back? Identify the root cause and tackle it. For example, if it's based on fear of rejection, put yourself into potential positions of rejection – and get used to it.
Accepting imperfection as part of life allows us to more easily reframe situations, so that where others might see a problem (say, unexpected budget constraints), you see an opportunity (making the best out of whatever resources are at hand). This allows creative outcomes to emerge.
That's also where rituals such as project post-mortems should come in, allowing people to openly and frequently talk about ideas that didn't work out. Importantly, this isn't about celebrating failure – it's about celebrating the learning that comes from unexpected places. Often, serendipity happens when people coincidentally realize that an idea that didn't work in one context might work in another.
Serendipity exists all around us. It may be hidden and subtle or obvious and in our faces. But, for too long, many of us have failed to recognize the nuances behind it. Serendipity is something that can be fostered and practiced, like a skill. It's something that can be carefully leveraged for valuable gains, whether in the form of new connections, new opportunities or new perspectives. And, as we move forward into a changed post-Covid world, developing the skills to cultivate serendipity can help propel us to new heights of success and meaningful connection.