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Serendipity feels like pure luck. But what if you could make it happen?

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Hi there, I hope you’ve enjoyed the first two issues of my Work in Progress newsletter. The newslette
 

Work in Progress

October 7 · Issue #3 · View online
The newsletter about work

Hi there,
I hope you’ve enjoyed the first two issues of my Work in Progress newsletter. The newsletter itself is also a work in progress, so feel free to let me know what you think!
This week I want to talk about the strange phenomenon known as serendipity. The physician-scientist Julius Comroe described serendipity like this: It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack and finding the farmer’s daughter instead. That’s his not-particularly-inclusive way of saying that serendipity is finding something you didn’t even know you were looking for.

Major scientific breakthroughs can be ascribed to serendipity. There’s penicillin, first noticed by microbiologist Alexander Fleming when one of his petri dishes had a spot where bacteria wouldn’t grow. Or microwave ovens, which use technology originally developed for radar systems during WWII.
And I recently finished reading Michael Pollan’s book How To Change Your Mind, which chronicles the chance discovery of LSD. Long story short: Scientist Accidentally Sticks Finger in Mouth. Has Wild Afternoon. To experience this kind of breakthrough, you need an open mind. And a willingness to change it.
But allowing yourself to deviate from the path you’re on can be difficult. Especially if you’re like me and prefer working in a structured and deliberate way.
Laser focus is always a good thing. For lasers
Scientist Sanda Erdelez studied serendipity in the 1990s and found that being laser focused can indeed get in the way of chance discoveries. (I came across her work in this piece.) Erdelez identifies three kinds of people:
  • Non-encounterers. This group views the world through a tight focus and tends to stick to their to-do lists.
  • Occasional encounterers. This group stumbles upon insights from time to time that they weren’t looking for.
  • Super-encounterers. For this group, new insights are everywhere. They see all kinds of connections and ideas that others miss.
Good news for those who want more serendipity in their lives: Erdelez shows that simply seeing yourself as a super-encounterer means you’ll be more open to making spontaneous discoveries. Turns out serendipity is not something that just happens, it’s something people do.
Here are three other things you can do today
  • Set aside more time. Continue to use your calendar to plan your work, but set aside a little more time than usual. Allow yourself to stray from your regular methods and use the extra time you set aside to actively try and view your work from a different angle. What do you see?
  • Ask new questions. What would you do in a given situation if you didn’t know the backstory? Imagine someone has just joined the team today. What would their take be? Or what solution would you opt for if time and money were not considerations? It’s also always useful to remind yourself what exactly the problem is that you’re trying to solve. 
  • Change your media diet. Odds are, you return to the same kinds of sources again and again. Change things up this week, and trade in some of your old standbys for new voices, making sure to pick a couple outside your comfort zone. I’ve just started listening to political podcasts. (Who would’ve thought?) They’re COMPLETELY different from the work-related stuff I’m usually absorbed by, and that has meant loads of new associations and ideas in my work.
Have a great week!
Rick
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