Reading biography books is great. After a long-read, I feel like I've mastered all the tips and tricks that can be gleaned from the life of the subject. However, this is false confidence. You can only connect the dots backward. That's why any article in which the author formulates the universal rules of success from the half-sentences of the current icon is misleading.
To contradict me, I will also cite an accidental discovery, popularised by the business tabloid, of success achieved by connecting two radically different dots:
Apple founder Steve Jobs was a student at Reed College, one of the most prestigious institutions of higher education in the US. He never graduated, but in retrospect, he has articulated the impact of the courses he took at Reed College on his life.
Jobs took calligraphy classes.
He learned to draw letters with feet, the differences between fonts, and the role of space between letters.
Steve Jobs said the following about calligraphy in a 2005 speech at Stanford University:
"It was beautiful. Historical. Artistically subtle in a way that science can't capture. And I found it fascinating. None of this had any hope of any practical application in my life."
But eventually, it did.
When the first Macintosh computer was being designed, the lessons learned in calligraphy class came up again and Jobs put everything he had learned in the course into the Macintosh. And so the Mac became the first computer with beautiful typography. Some say it was this obsession with detail and a sense of beauty that brought Apple its success.
The study of beautiful handwriting became useful in an unlikely area of Steve Jobs' life: it contributed to the success of technological innovation.
Steve Jobs had no idea that he would ever benefit from calligraphy.
The dots can only be connected backward and we don't know which one will work to our advantage. But with a few clever solutions, we can help place as many points as possible on the imaginary coordinate system of our lives.
The accidental discovery of points, serendipity, can help us make our own luck and connect previously unseen experiences, and skills.
In this article, I seek to answer the question of how we can maximize accidental discoveries in our everyday lives.
What is Serendipity?
Serendipity is the phenomenon of accidentally discovering something exhilaratingly good. Also known as accidental discovery, it is a phenomenon in which you target a particular direction but by chance find a solution to a different problem.
Professionals in medicine, business development, and innovation often owe their greatest achievements to serendipity. Serendipity can be when a drug developed for heart disease has an unexpected potentiating effect. Similarly, serendipity is when you arrive at an interview and realize that the interviewer is a childhood friend.
But where does this strange expression come from?
The word serendipity first appears in a Persian fable, The Three Princes of Serendip. During their adventures, the main characters of the story discover things they had never imagined. The princes can turn the opportunities that arise to their advantage because they balance commitment to their plans with seizing the opportunities that arise.
Serendipity on the Web
The internet has taken serendipity to a whole new level. It has connected people from all over the world interested in similar fields, making ideas and information for learning, online courses, easily accessible.
In 2010, Google's then CEO Eric Schmidt called Google the engine of serendipity. Schmidt envisioned a future where you could connect with friends at any time without typing in search terms, with just the phone in your pocket, and never get bored.
Unfortunately or fortunately, the vision seems to be coming true, but not just because of Google's services. Today you don't even have to get out of bed to make unexpected discoveries. Youtube's algorithm recommends videos from never-before-seen content producers based on what you've watched, Facebook knows exactly what product you want to buy, and Google Discover uses artificial intelligence to recommend news.
The internet has become the world's biggest serendipity engine.
But is it?
Serendipity is designed into these products, but the very point of random discovery is lost when you design randomness into the expected functionality of something.
The internet also helps create filter bubbles to readjust our own opinions, which is the opposite of serendipity.
It used to be our friends who recommended books to us. Although these recommendations have not necessarily disappeared, today it is mostly the "They might also be interested in" section of Amazon and bookstores that influence which book we get.
But often it is not what interests me that I want to read, but what is unexpected, offers new perspectives, and opens the door to another world.
The web can also facilitate unexpected encounters beyond algorithms. If you have had enough of technology, you'll find serendipity tips for other areas of life in the following points:
1. Build on Accidental Discoveries Online
Let go of algorithms for a moment.
The internet is much more conducive to serendipity without them.
- Follow people from different fields with different opinions.
- Use RSS feeds instead of Facebook feeds!
- Subscribe to newsletters!
- Answer to newsletters! (A surprising number of bestselling authors write newsletters. What's even more surprising is that if you reply to them, it often gets to them. I tried. It works.)
If you follow these tips, you've taken a significant step toward adding more points of connection to your life.
Consuming information that is less dependent on algorithms helps bring radically different opinions than our own to our attention. Other people, other problems and other solutions will fill our screens.
A personal example of Internet serendipity:
I have been looking for a long time for a tool/method to take notes in such a way that the thoughts I jot down are useful later. A big step forward was the discovery of Roam Research.
I've tweeted some Roamfluencers, added bloggers using the Zettelkasten method to my RSS feed. Then after a while, I noticed that the best marketing articles, the most practical career tips, and the best book recommendations were not coming from the thematic websites, but from content shared by the Roam community.
Thematic communities often circulate clichéd, unimaginative content. In such cases, it's good to have a foot in the door of other sites.
2. Serendipity for Introverts
A wide network of contacts is the best catalyst for serendipitous discoveries. Conference schmoozing, networking - as much as most of us may not like it - work effectively.
But I can't help it.
As an introvert, I feel super frustrated when I think of the crowd in the lobby during a conference break and I'd rather count to two thousand in German in an elevator than chat about the weather.
Serendipity does not favor introverts.
But here's the twist.
You can help accidental discoveries by making it easier for others to connect with you.
You don't have to text anyone or use robots to increase your follower count. These are no less awesome than conference hype.
Without any kind of meaningful connection, it's hard to reach out to someone, whether they're standing across from you or on the other side of a screen.
So give us a reason.
- Stop mindlessly scrolling for a while and step out of the role of perpetual observer.
- Post a picture of your favorite mug.
- Post some thoughts about a good movie.
- Think out loud with a blog.
- Write, tweet, whatever!
Just hit the upload button and get visible!
For example, I write a newsletter about books, self-improvement, and my strange ideas. When someone subscribes they get an automatic email asking what they think is a good newsletter. It's a sincere question, I'm genuinely curious what others expect from a newsletter.
But the welcome letter has achieved more than that. Many people respond to the letter and I often have a good conversation with subscribers from different backgrounds, ages, and interests.
People I would otherwise probably never meet. The people who reply to the first email are also more willing to share their views with me later, and sometimes they recommend books and podcasts to me.
3. Explore Random Ideas Deliberately
The most frustrating thing about good ideas that suddenly come to mind is that I can't remember any of them. On a run, in the shower, reading the side of the cereal box, random ideas pop into my head and I briefly feel proud of what a genius I am.
Then I forget all about it.
Most of the time, those random thoughts lead to the most interesting conversations and the best articles. And their impact is magnified if you can connect those ideas.
It is these random ideas that we need for today's creative problem-solving challenges.
One of the most useful elements of knowledge work is a unique idea.
The rest can be automated anyway.
A good ad copy, content strategy, or app feature will not be something that can be easily copied from a competitor. Great solutions are fed by personal stories and experiences, born from a fusion of disparate ideas.
But what's the first step?
Let's write down the ideas!
I have a notebook on my desk where I jot down ideas that come to my mind during the day. If I think of something while I'm snoozing on the tram, I write it down in Notion on my phone.
What do I do when I'm running and listening to a podcast turns into a brainstorming session? I'd like to write an audio note to myself (that would be a good solution), but I'm not standing for that yet. I usually peel my thoughts from the podcast notes afterward.
4. Leave the Known Path
If you're following the loudest career advice and setting your sights on the most appealing challenges, you're going to have to make the already difficult journey while competing with everyone else.
How many of us realize, after passed tough exams, and unpaid internships, that we'd earn twice as much as a mechanic than with our chosen profession. But we followed the advice of others. Only others did the same.
I'm not saying that everyone should learn to fix a car. I'm just saying there's no recipe for a happy life. If you play by other people's scripts, chances are you'll turn into a burnt-out energy vampire.
Do what excites you instead.
Because enthusiasm is contagious.
We'd rather seek the company of slightly irresponsible, dedicated people with plans than listen to someone complain. Serendipity is enthusiasm. And enthusiasm is often found on the rarely-choosen track.
5. Give Before You Ask
Every week, I am contacted by strangers and acquaintances I have never spoken more than two words to, offering me the business opportunity of a lifetime. They are expanding because business is going well. They are looking for new staff with flexible hours. Of course, they'll pay me well if I do everything right.
Even though I know it's all bullsh*t, if a dear friend contacts me with something like this, I'll listen, share my doubts, even join in on the forced presentation if they try hard enough.
I'd rather take an online course from an expert who has given his knowledge for free for years with quality articles than a training course advertised with the gimmicky bait of a fake guru.
I'd rather join an MLM presentation that a childhood friend invited me to than one by my third cousin's brother's computer science teacher.
I join because he gave before he asked.
Give before you ask! Give tips, ask honest and critical questions, honor others with your attention! Perhaps it is this giving that best fosters serendipity.