A lot of life makes sense only when you look at events in the rearview mirror; we tend to connect the dots in hindsight. When we do so, we often turn random life choices and chance happenings into a convincing and logical story that we tell others. Which one of us hasn’t presented their CV as if their life was, in fact, a coherent, rationally organized plan? In truth, we might not have had a clear plan for our careers at all. The reality was almost certainly different, often driven by coincidences and accidents, by an unexpected idea, encounter, or conversation.
But what if we can learn to start to connect the dots, not only with hindsight but also with foresight? What if we could prepare the ground to take advantage of these coincidences, creating a field where they could germinate and thrive? What if we knew how to nourish and cultivate them? And most important, what if we could make sure they flourished into better outcomes?
While few of us can engineer a seismic event or running into Wladimir Klitschko, we can, by being attuned to opportunity, shape an outcome that develops and takes advantage of serendipitous conditions.
What we often fail to realize is that successful people have often not just “been lucky,” even when it appears that a chance event has played an important role in their achievements. In fact, successful people have often, either consciously or subconsciously, done the necessary groundwork to create the conditions that have brought them such “luck.”
Not only is it the Oprah Winfreys, Arianna Huffingtons, Richard Bransons, and Bill Gateses of the world who are lucky and who can set up equally lucky environments for others—all of us can be part of nurturing serendipity for ourselves and for others.
Inventions such as nylon, Velcro, Viagra, Post-it Notes, X-rays, penicillin, rubber, and microwave ovens all involved serendipity. Presidents, superstars, professors, businesspeople—including many of the world’s leading CEOs—credit a big part of their success to serendipity.
But serendipity isn’t just a guiding force in great scientific discoveries, business achievements, or diplomatic breakthroughs. It is present in our everyday lives, in the smallest moments and the greatest life-changing events.
Imagine that your neighbor rents an industrial-sized ladder to climb in order to fix the sash windows on her house. You spot her working away and suddenly remember the loose tile on your own roof. It’s not serious so you weren’t going to bother fixing it, but hey . . .
You pop outside, start chatting with her, and help her drag away the branches. You invite her in for a beer, and then she’s holding the ladder while you fix your loose tile. (Before you’ve drunk the beer, of course!) What’s more, while you are up on your roof, you realize the guttering is loose and about to fall off. It’s too big a job for you, but now you know you need to hire some professionals to fix it—which might well have saved someone in your family from an injury had it fallen at the wrong time.
Perhaps you had a similar situation recently yourself?
It’s the kind of situation that happens all the time. We might not recognize it as serendipity, but it has all the characteristics: A chance event appears, we pay attention to it, and link it to an unrelated fact that we’re also aware of. We connect the two and then follow through with a bit of determination, leading to a solution to a problem that often we didn’t even know we had.