The Serendipity Mindset: The Art and Science of Creating Good Luck
Chance encounters, or strokes of fortune, feature in countless stories of business success. This book looks beneath the surface, reveals and teaches the mindset that can transform pure chance into opportunity. The author is director of the Global Economy Program at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs, and a lecturer at the London School of Economics.
Serendipity is an aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident. To other people it looks like “good luck”, but it is more the ability to recognise and seize an opportunity, rather than have good fortune thrust upon one. Finding a wallet stuffed with money on the conference room floor is good luck, whereas holding it up and asking if anyone has lost their wallet might be the beginning of a valuable friendship – that would be serendipity.
The author says “This is a book about the interactions of coincidence, human ambition and imagination”. In the above example: finding the wallet is the coincidence; ambition is the desire to make something of the discovery; add imagination and you open up a whole menu of possibilities: from spending spree to earning a reputation for honesty – or even making a wealthy friend.
Business is typically forged on human ambition and imagination, but early success often feeds an appetite for control – and “control freaks” can be blind to the opportunities thrown up by the unexpected. They only see chance events as distractions. If plans go awry, they may blame the failure on “bad luck” rather than admit their own inflexible attitude.
The author himself admits to being “a German who is used to planning” and prone to feel anxious when something unexpected happens. That makes him an ideal teacher, because he has worked hard to discover and analyse the mindset that enables one to “connect the dots” and cultivate serendipity. He presents a goldmine of examples from science, business and life where an apparent mishap or failure lead to a breakthrough.
Indeed, studies suggest that around 50% of major scientific breakthroughs emerge as the result of accidents or coincidences. A well-known example is Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin, launching the whole field of antibiotics. Other examples include X-rays, nylon, microwave ovens, rubber, Velcro, Viagra and Post-it Notes – where would we be without these!
The book goes beyond the ability to recognise and respond to opportunities in chaos, but the subtitle – The Art and Science of Creating Good Luck – is actually a bit misleading. True, he does show ways to develop better fortune, but it would be better to call it “inviting” or “encouraging” good luck. For example, he suggests better ways to start a conversation with a stranger – ways that will make it more likely to lead to chance connections or shared interests.
The publishers may have chosen the word “creating” to make the book appeal to the human desire to control – for control freaks are exactly the readership that would benefit the most from this book’s wisdom and practical advice.
For the rest of us, it offers a great way to rediscover the sense of play that is so important in life – and too often lost in business.
STEVE JOBS: THE EXCLUSIVE BIOGRAPHY
“It’s your book” said Steve Jobs when he chose Walter Isaacson to write this definitive biography, “I won’t even read it.” Here was a man, notorious for his need to control, apparently giving a stranger unfettered permission to expose his disturbed background and turbulent career. Jobs did, with some initial reluctance, live up to that promise by encouraging even his harshest critics – past colleagues that he had fired, abused or abandoned – to be interviewed by Isaacson.
The result is an extraordinarily rich and textured account of a very complex and unpredictable character. On the one hand he could exemplify the serenity of his Buddhist beliefs – a quality evident in the techno-Zen minimalism of his creations and preferred lifestyle. On the other hand his colleagues could see him as a swearing, vindictive Rasputin figure who stole others’ ideas, told lies and could treat family and lovers appallingly.
His public image was a lot less complicated: he was known as a God-like figure that created the most innovative computer company in the 1970s and raised it from the dead twenty years later. He was a techno-guru before adoring disciples. We read that, when the iPhone was first released, Jobs visited his local Apple store and was hailed “as if Moses had walked in to buy a Bible”. On the launch of the iPad it was said: “The last time there was this much excitement about a tablet, it had some commandments written on it.”
It is indeed good for humanity to have the example and inspiration of idols and saviours. But it is also vital to understand the bigger picture, one that reveals the human beneath the myth as this book does so successfully. If the Great and the Good were truly God-like, then what hope could there be for the rest of us ordinary mortals? This book is not a hagiography, but rather a realistic exploration of the contradictions that can deliver greatness, provided that they are not denied.
Jobs claimed to be above the allure of greedy materialism, and yet he created gadgets that inspired the whole world with the lust to possess them. He embraced a creed of silent mindful awareness, and yet he destroyed that inner peace with a smart phone connecting us into the whole chaos of existence. But can there be any value in transcending materialism if you have never experienced the lust to possess? What is the value of achieving one-ness if you have never lived multiplicity? If someone who begins his life in revolt against capitalism ends up as CEO of the world’s richest company, does that make him a hypocrite or a boundary-shattering genius? We need books like this to help answer such questions.
We also learn that Jobs’ final wish was for everyone at his funeral to be given a copy of The Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda – a book that he adored and re-read every year. How much of the man’s deeper nature can be found by reading this book, and why did he think it was so important for the next generation of business leaders to read it?
The Business Innovation Leaders Forum interviewed Nalanie Harilela Chellaram and Shaman Chellaram – two members of the famous Harilela business family that are also known for their experience bridging modern business and spiritual insights. The interview asks why this autobiography was so influential and what it meant for Jobs. This podcast will be released though the Business Innovation Leaders Forum this January.
And for this Book of the Month we are also offering the option to include The Autobiography of a Yogi as a bonus for those wanting to dig deeper into the mind of Steve Jobs.
FRAMERS: HUMAN ADVANTAGE IN AN AGE OF TECHNOLOGY AND TURMOIL
The technique of “re-framing” personal problems became popular in the 1970s. Basically it required one to take a step back from confrontation in order to gain a wider, more inclusive perspective and a fresh approach to the problem. For example: an inventor totally obsessed by failure to raise money could reframe the question “how can I finance my project?” into “how can I further my project?”. With that a whole panoply of alternative solutions – such as canvassing support from friends – would open up. These authors have “re-framed” framing, and brought it up to date to address bigger than personal issues: “from pandemics to populism, AI to ISIS, wealth inequity to climate change”.
The book begins by making an important distinction at a time when too many fear that AI is a growing threat. They quote a headline from The Financial Times: “AI Discovers Antibiotics to Treat Drug-Resistant Diseases”. They point out that AI has long been applied to the problem as a rapid way to search molecules close to existing antibiotics in order to find new varieties – a process that actually made it easier for bacteria to adapt. What this team did was to extend the search to more than a hundred million molecules with any antimicrobial properties. In this way they discovered “halicin”, the superdrug against superbugs.
Yes, AI had discovered the drug, but only because humans could frame its search in a truly innovative way – an example of how humans, unlike computers, can innovate mental models and then apply the analytical skills of AI to explore those models. This is an important message at a time when many are losing confidence in human cognitive abilities and turning to irrational alternatives.
We use mental models all the time, often without being aware of them. The problem is that the lack of awareness can cause people to be trapped in a particular model – as when Nokia dominated mobile phone sales in 2008 when the model was to make each generation smaller and cheaper. Then Apple introduced the larger and more expensive iPhone, and stole the market. Looking back: the telephone was first seen as a way to listen to music remotely, while the phonograph would be a way to send audio memos to distant offices. It was only when the roles were reversed that both technologies took off.
The wealth of such examples in this book is especially valuable. It is easy to describe a simple principle like framing and make it seem trite and forgettable. But with so many case studies, most readers will find something close to their own innovative challenges and find inspiration.
As this book shows: what matters is not what frames are, but the way they can liberate and empower us when understood and used properly.