When you think about serendipity, you likely think of strokes of good luck that happen entirely by chance.
But my guest today says that we can play a role in harnessing more lightning strikes of fortune, and create the conditions to both experience a greater number of meaningful accidents, and make accidents more meaningful. His name is Christian Busch and he’s a professor of economics and entrepreneurship and the author of The Serendipity Mindset: The Art and Science of Creating Good Luck. We begin our conversation with what serendipity is, and how it’s different than simple chance, and is instead a kind of smart luck, which requires acting on the unexpected and connecting the dots of seemingly random events. We then discuss the three types of serendipity, the obstacles to experiencing this force, and how the amount of serendipity you experience depends on how you frame the world. Christian explains how to develop a serendipity-seeking mindset, including how to intentionally seed triggers for it. We end our conversation with how organizations and not just individuals can take steps to strategically leverage the power of serendipity.
If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.
- How is serendipity different from luck or chance?
- How the discovery of Viagra was actually quite serendipitous
- What it takes to develop a serendipitous mindset
- Becoming more open and observant
- Proactively seeking out serendipitous triggers in our life
- Leveraging technology to create your own luck
- Managing serendipity overload once you become more aware of it
- The beautiful power of used bookstores
- How your bad luck can be turned around for good
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- Man’s Search for Meaning
- The Art of Noticing
- What Poker Can Teach You About Luck, Skill, and Mastery
- The Lucky Charms of 7 Famous Men
- Can You Learn to Be Lucky?
- Introversion as an Excuse
- Follow Your Curiosity
- Gardner’s Books
- How to Be a Creative Genius Like Da Vinci
- Why Boredom Is Good For You
- How Reframing Builds Resilience
Connect With Christian
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Read the Transcript
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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. When you think about serendipity, you likely think of strokes of good luck that happen entirely by chance, but my guest today says that we can play a role in harnessing more lightning strikes of fortune and create the conditions to both experience a greater number of meaningful accidents and make accidents more meaningful. His name is Christian Busch, he’s a professor of Economics and Entrepreneurship, and the author of ‘The Serendipity Mindset: The Art and Science of Creating Good Luck’. We begin our conversation with what serendipity is, how it’s different from simple chance, and is instead a kind of smart luck, which requires acting on the unexpected and connecting the dots of seemingly random events. We then discuss the three types of serendipity, the obstacles to experiencing this force and how the amount of serendipity you experience depends on how you frame the world. Christian explains how to develop a serendipity-seeking mindset, including how to intentionally see triggers for it. And we end our conversation with how organizations, and not just individuals, can take steps to strategically leverage the power of serendipity. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/serendipity.
Alright. Christian Busch, welcome to the show.
Christian Busch: Thank you so much for having me.
Brett McKay: So you are the author of a new book called ‘The Serendipity Mindset: The Art and Science of Creating Good Luck’. Let’s talk about your background and what led up to the writing of this book. What started you down the path exploring luck and chance and serendipity?
Christian Busch: It’s actually been quite a serendipitous journey. It really started when I had an accident when I was 18. You know, I used to be this kind of reckless teenager who had to repeat a year in high school. I was kicked out of school, so I was this kind of troubled kid, in a way. And I transferred this kind of lifestyle into my driving style, and then one day, I wasn’t that lucky anymore, and I crashed into four parked cars. And I won’t forget the policeman who came to the scene and he was like, “Oh my God, he’s still alive.” And so this idea that I was supposed to be dead, that stuck with me, and it put me on this intense search for meaning. And I started reading this wonderful book of Viktor Frankl, the ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’, which was all about finding meaning in the most dire of situations. And so it kind of inspired me to try to figure out what gives me meaning. What could I do in the world that somehow is meaningful? And so I started out as a community-builder and then entrepreneur, social entrepreneur, and then went into research. And one of the things that I just found extremely fascinating was that the most purpose-driven, inspiring, successful people around me, they seemed to have something in common, which was that they intuitively cultivate serendipity, they intuitively see something in the unexpected, and then turn them into positive outcomes.
And so I got really excited about this and it became kind of a life philosophy and a daily practice. But I first wanted to write a book about purpose and impact and related questions, and I remember pitching that to friends and saying, “Hey, this is my new book,” and they were like, “Yeah, but you know what? Do you have other things, other ideas as well?” And so I was like, “Alright. Well, actually, the thing I’m really excited about is serendipity.” And so that kind of like is how the book came about, and now it’s really kind of this bringing the last 15 years of my life into this, but also a lot of the research, and just being fascinated by this kind of life force that serendipity can be.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s start with definitions. What is serendipity, and how is it different from chance or randomness?
Christian Busch: Yeah. Usually, when we think about luck, we think about this kind of blind luck, right? So, being born into a loving family or things that we can’t influence that much, but actually serendipity is all about this kind of active smart luck, so you know this unexpected good luck that comes from our own actions. And so, think about this situation, you’re in a coffee shop, and if you have erratic hand movements, as I do, which makes me nervous also with the microphone here, by the way, that I might [0:03:39.1] ____ that over at some point, but essentially, if you’re kind of like a slightly hand gesture-type person, as I am, you might spill your coffee over the person next to you. And imagine that situation where you sense that kind of connection, right? You sense there might be something there, and now you have two options, right? Option one is that you kind of say, “Oh my God, I’m so sorry, here’s a napkin,” and then you walk outside afterwards, and you’re like, “Ah, what could have been?” And option number two is like, “Well, hey, I’m so sorry. I was so immersed in X, Y, Z idea.” And you know, you start talking with the person and it might become the love of your life, it might become a co-founder. And so really this kind of idea that, yes, there’s something unexpected happening here, but you acted on it and you did something with it, you created your own smart luck.
Brett McKay: So, let’s talk about what makes the serendipitous thing serendipitous. What are the factors? What makes something… What are you looking for when the scientists… In your research. Like what makes something serendipitous, as opposed to just based on pure skill or just pure chance?
Christian Busch: Yeah, it’s really this idea of saying, “What is something that unexpectedly happens, but where we then see some kind of action?” And I think that’s coming a lot to that question of, “What could have happened?” Like this situation I just mentioned with when you spill that coffee, we might all have that same situation, but then the question is, “How do we act on it? What do we do with it?” And if you think about how serendipity unfolds in examples of Viagra, for example, where you have people who researched a completely different medication, Angina, essentially, they gave people medication and they were like, “Okay, great. It seems like people have some kind of movement in their trousers, male participants.” And so now, a lot of times what we might do is we might be embarrassed, or we might see it as a failure that our medication doesn’t really work, or has these kind of side effects, but they did the opposite, they said, “Okay, that’s unexpected, but you know what? Maybe there is something in there that could help a lot of people.” And so that’s how Viagra evolved, as a kind of like… In a way, out of a quote unquote ‘experiment that didn’t work’, or that kind of like had a weird side effect.
And so that’s really what I’m most fascinated by when looking at serendipity, that a lot of times, it’s really kind of trying to trace how did something positive, that’s positively unexpected, emerge? What was behind that? What was the process behind that? So was it really just this incidence or was it really something where someone had to see something in the unexpected and then connect the dots? And that’s really my fascination for us, in terms of saying, “What is that kind of connecting the dots piece that needs to be there?”
Brett McKay: Well, so yeah, in the book, like you talk about, there’s a trigger with an event. So, in the Viagra example, the trigger is like people started noticing dudes were getting erections after taking this heart medication, and it was unanticipated. Then you also talk about this idea of by association, what is that?
Christian Busch: Yeah. So that’s really about this idea of like that we have to connect that with something, right? So, if we… Let’s… This example of seeing that there’s some kind of erection happening, or the example that there’s a coffee that’s spilled or other examples where there’s something unexpected happening. So, that’s the trigger, that’s the initial thing that happens, but then it’s up to us to connect that to something, to some kind of problem. In the case of Viagra, it was the problem that a lot of people in the world have that bigger problem of not having erections. In the case of the coffee shop, it might be… It might be nice to find a love partner, so something that somehow makes those dots meaningful. And so that’s what serendipity is all about, this kind of idea that we make accidents meaningful, but also, and I think that’s something that we’ll probably talk about later, we can also create more meaningful accidents. But it’s really about saying, “We need to somehow imbue meaning in that kind of trigger that happens.”
Brett McKay: Are there different types of serendipity?
Christian Busch: Yeah, so there’s three kind of broader types. One is really this kind of Archimedes serendipity, when you’re looking for something specific already to solve a problem, right? So maybe you wanna find a specific job or something where, in a way, you’re looking for something already, but then there’s something unexpected, like some unexpected kind of way of getting into the company via another friend that you didn’t even know worked there, or in this example of Archimedes, the reason why it’s called that, where he was essentially trying to figure out, for the king, if the crown that the king got was really full of gold or was there some kind of fake crown going on there. And so he didn’t find a solution to that problem, how to know that it is gold, and so he would go to the baths and he would kind of go into the baths, and then he realized, “Oh wow, when I go here into the water, the water is essentially… The water levels rise as people lower themselves into it, and they rise differently depending on how much weight they have and how big they are.” And so, essentially, he realized that if he could measure or see how much the kind of gold replaced, if you would have a real gold crown and then this crown, you could see if that would be really gold.
And so, in a way, he found an unexpected way to figure out what that was about, which is very different from the kind of post-it note serendipity, which is more the kind of serendipity where you’re looking for something completely different, you’re looking for maybe a job in a particular industry, and then you come across something in another industry, and you’re like, “Oh my God, this could work too.” Or in the case of post-it serendipity, it’s really about this idea that, this guy, Mr. Spencer, he was figuring out how he could develop a stronger glue, and then somehow, he realized that actually the only thing he created was like this sticky substance. And so he realized, “Hey, you know what? Maybe I can use that, as opposed to kind of like weak glue, in a way.” And so, again, he figured out a way to do something useful, but not necessarily the one he was looking for.
And then the third one, which is my absolute favorite, because it’s really about this idea that life, any moment, any second can bring you a complete change in everything, that could be for the better, is really that kind of thunderbolt serendipity. So this kind of being struck by something out of nowhere. Like in this kind of example, where you’re not even looking for falling in love and, in the street, you somehow unexpectedly meet someone, or those kind of things which unexpectedly happen and without us looking for it. But all these kind of examples have in common, that is always this kind of unexpected thing, there’s always something we have to do something with it, but also we need the tenacity and really kind of this grit to do that. And I think, I’ve seen in my own life, a lot of times I’ve been held back by the kind of inner imposter that comes out sometimes, the syndrome, or other things, where it’s really kind of, we need to stick with it, otherwise, it won’t happen.
Brett McKay: So, okay, serendipity is you notice a trigger and you’re able to make that connection, connect dots in an unexpected way, and so it requires developing, when you look at the title of your book, a serendipity mindset, a mindset where you start noticing those things. But you spend one chapter of the book exploring the obstacles that we have in noticing serendipity in our lives. What are the big obstacles that prevent people from noticing those triggers and making those connections?
Christian Busch: Yeah, it’s interesting. A lot of those actually I’ve seen in myself as well, and a lot in the people around me, where one is really around this idea that we underestimate the unexpected. I remember this friend in school who would always be like, “Oh, it’s very probable that the improbable happens.” And I always thought, “Oh wow, that sounds very mysterious, but I have no idea what you’re talking about.” And then what I realized is, if you think about our conversation now, it’s very unlikely that my microphone drops down, it’s very unlikely that the computer gets off and stops working, and all these different types of things, but if you add up all these different things, it actually becomes relatively likely that some kind of glitch might happen, or something… And so we tend to have this illusion of control that we can control a lot of things, and we get trained in school and business school and high school… I grew up in Germany, we get trained that we can plan things out, but then actually the unexpected is usually what really shapes our lives. And so, it’s really this kind of idea that, “We have this illusion of control, but the unexpected happens all the time.” And a lot of times, we don’t necessarily see it or we don’t necessarily do something with it.
And so it’s really… We tend to underestimate that, which is a pity, because in a way, we… Once we start opening our eyes, like in some companies, for example, I work with, they start weekly meetings with a question of, “What surprised you last week?” And once you ask these simple questions, people get much more open to, “Oh, there was something in the data about our marketing strategy that didn’t work.” “Hey, great, like we can directly do something about this now, versus waiting for another couple of months, and… ” So it’s really this kind of becoming more realistic about how unexpected a lot of things will actually be. Another one, which is actually my favorite, is around this idea that we tend to post-rationalize. So, essentially, we tend to look back at things and we then spin them as if they were very predictable. So picture the kind of manager who speaks to the committee meeting and says, “Oh yeah, we had this and this plan, and then we wanted to reach this, and this is how we reached it.” So we tell it as a step-by-step story, but usually it’s like a bit more of a squiggle, right? Where it’s some unexpected kind of thing usually emerged, but we still tell it as if it was step-by step.
And so I guess we’ve all done that, you know, with our CVs, where we might say, “Oh yeah, I always wanted to go into this industry and then this.” Yeah, but maybe you just ran into someone at a conference and they gave you your new job. And so it’s really this kind of idea that a lot of times we airbrush serendipity out of our lives because we assume that life might be more kind of planned out, but also because we feel that sense we have to portray more of control than we actually had. And I think that’s quite related also to the other ones, which maybe a third one is really around this kind of idea that we tend to have a bit of functional fixedness, so this kind of hammer and nail problem, where as soon as you have a hammer and you wanna get a nail into the wall, you will always look for where’s the hammer so that I can get into the wall? So you wouldn’t necessarily look for other objects that could do the same. And so that’s the same for when we have one way of how we solve a problem usually in business or in our personal life, and we then use the same model, the same approach even though there might be much more effective ones. And so it closes us down to serendipity because we assume we have it figured out already.
Brett McKay: Right. Yeah, like that functional fixedness, that’s one way goals and plans can get in the way of serendipity. And you’re just like, “Well, this is the goal. This is what we’re supposed to do. This is the plan. And if we deviate from the plan, that’s a problem.” Maybe there’s deviations that could be better than your original plan.
Christian Busch: Absolutely. And that’s something we did a study recently with people who lead larger companies and what was fascinating was they are extremely inspirational, purpose-driven leaders. And one thing they all had in common is that they have a pretty good sense of direction, so a certain North Star, or a sense of purpose, or a curiosity, just something that guides them. But also then they have this humility or this idea that, “Hey, the unexpected will happen, and that’s okay.” One thing I really love about your podcast is really thinking about… I think we’ve been instilled, especially as men, for a very long time when you grow up, right, that you have to have this very strong sense of exactly where you’re going, what you’re doing. And this type of masculinity that can lead us in the wrong direction because it doesn’t allow for this humility sometimes, where we would just say, “Hey, look. You know what? Maybe there is a certain sense of direction but also we need to be able to see that we can’t plan everything out.” And so I think that’s where it gets really into the idea that if we have that sense of direction, a lot of times it’s really also about that humility of being open to the unexpected.
Brett McKay: Alright. So it sounds like, to prevent goals from you getting that functional fixedness, you… Instead of being completely goal-driven, have a general vision, a big picture view of where you wanna go, and then be open to new ways of achieving that vision.
Christian Busch: Exactly.
Brett McKay: Okay. Well, and another thing, you highlight a lot of research about how people can make those connections more, of serendipitous connections, is their frame of mind, how they frame the world. And there’s a lot of research coming out of this. Where there’s research that shows that lucky people see the world different than from unlucky people. Can you walk us through some of that research?
Christian Busch: Yeah. It’s actually quite fascinating because it’s really a lot about this question of how do you, by the way you frame the world already, kind of predefine a lot of what will happen to you. And so one of these experiments is a colleague took one person who self-identifies as very lucky, so someone who says, “Good things always happen to me.” And then someone who says, “Bad things always happen to me. I’m always in accidents.” So someone who considers themselves to be very unlucky. And so he tells them, “Walk down the street, go into a coffee shop, order a coffee and sit down. And then we’ll have our interview.” What he doesn’t tell them is that there’s hidden cameras across the street and in the coffee shop, there’s a five pound note in front of the door, and inside the coffee shop it’s only actors, and then there’s this super-successful businessman who sits at the table, who can make big dreams happen. And so now the lucky person, the person who self-identifies as lucky, walks down the street, sees the five pound note, picks it up, goes inside, orders the coffee, sits next to the businessman, that’s the table that’s closest or the seat that’s closest, has a wonderful conversation, they exchange business cards, and that’s that.
The unlucky person walks down the street, steps over the five pound note, so doesn’t see it, goes inside, orders the coffee, sits next to the businessman, that’s the empty seat that’s closest, ignores the businessman, and that’s that. Now, at the end of the day, they ask both people, “So how was your day today?” And so the lucky person says, “Well, it was amazing. I found money in the street. I made a new friend, and we don’t know if an opportunity came out of it but it wouldn’t be unexpected.” And the unlucky person just says, “Well, nothing really happened.” And so it’s really that idea that, at the end of the day, they frame the occasions already in a way where they were more open to that kind of unexpected luck to happen.
Brett McKay: Alright. So what happens though if… Okay. This comes a lot of down to personality traits. There’s this idea of neuroticism. Neurotic people tend to be not as open to new things as, say, people with more open personality. How do you manage that? What if you tend to be like a Larry David type, and everything’s just terrible all the time? Can you proactively change the way you frame the world so that you can have more of those serendipitous occasions?
Christian Busch: It’s interesting because, as a closet introvert, I have these spikes of extroversion but actually I’m quite introverted, and so I’ve always tried to figure out ways of how can you cultivate serendipity without having to always put yourself out there or without having to always be in a really good mood or without always having to be on, and so on? And I feel like there’s a lot of aspects to exactly your point, where things such as extroversion and quote unquote ‘good energy’ and putting yourself out there can benefit, right, in terms of like you meet more people potentially, you keep in touch with more people. People tend to reach out more. So there’s all these things that potentially facilitate serendipity. But at the same time, there’s a huge role for potential… For people who are more introverted or more kind of closed, in the sense that serendipity so often comes from silent sources, from calm sources, like reading a book and then connecting the dots to something maybe we saw on television, and then coming up with something, or reflecting on a conversation that we had at work two weeks ago and now giving ourselves the reflective space to do that.
And so there’s a role for introverts to have that as well. And at the same time, introverts, a lot of times, or more introverted people also are a great complement in teams for extroverts, because extroverts tend to be out there, out there, out there, and then they need this reflective space of introversion to really help them ground it, make sense out of it, and filter it. And so it’s interesting also that I feel, a lot of times, as an introvert… Like one thing, for example, that I’ve tried to do more and more is when I go to an event or so, that I try to talk with the host and the key people at the beginning and get them excited about an idea so that they, in a way, can spread the idea. So it’s almost like you’re trying to embed it with the people who can then be extrovert for you, even if you don’t feel like doing it yourself.
Brett McKay: So the big part of serendipity mindset is just being more open to or… Yeah, just being open to new possibilities. Don’t just be so narrowly-focused. Speaking of you describing that one research, that one experiment with the coffee shop reminded me of another experiment you highlighted, and it goes back to that idea of having a narrow focus and goals or functional fixedness, was the newspaper one, where they did an experiment where they told people, “We want you to find certain words in this newspaper article.” And in the article… And if you do, you’ll win X amount of money or… Or in the newspaper, there was a point where it said, “Stop reading, you’ll win $500.” I know I’m kind of like… I’m botching the details, but the idea, this experiment showed that you get so focused on a goal or an idea that you miss other opportunities that might even be better.
Christian Busch: Exactly, and that’s something I feel we might actually do quite often because we, in a way, assume that there is that kind of idea of we have to have a specified kind of way of how we go about things, and are then so focused on it that we might miss things. And so that happens in the company context all the time, where imagine you’re the manager, and you’re saying, “We need to cut costs,” and then you send people out to cut costs. But because you said, “Cut costs,” rather than, “Let’s increase profits,” which could also be about selling more things, or it could be about many more things, you’re making people much more narrow… Not necessarily narrow-minded but narrow-looking for where there could be potential solutions. And I feel a lot of times we do that because we want to decrease uncertainty, we want to decrease potential risk, and everything else, but what we’re really doing is we’re shutting ourselves down to serendipity a lot of times, and it’s really something… It comes back also to, I think, what we talked about earlier, around this idea of how do we have that kind of sense of where we’re going, but are also open for these kind of unexpected things, such as that, literally, in the newspaper, it might tell us that we already found the solution. And that’s really a lot around this idea of having a certain sense of where we’re going, but at the same time, being open to, hey, it might arise very unexpectedly.
Brett McKay: Alright. So having more serendipity in your life requires you to be more open, in a more open, more curious mindset, and being able to notice potential triggers for serendipity, but you also argue in the book that we can proactively seed triggers, potential serendipity triggers in our lives. What does that look like? What are some ways that people can do that?
Christian Busch: Yeah, that’s one of my favorites because it’s all about this question of how do we create meaningful accidents, in a way? How do we create positive coincidences? And so… Which is, of course, extremely counterintuitive, and so it’s something where the setting or the casting hooks is all about this question of how do we essentially let other people connect the dots for us. So there’s a wonderful entrepreneur in London, Olly Berrets, and if you would ask him this kind of dreaded question, what do you do, right? The question that comes at every conference, at every… When you meet a new person, he would not just answer, “Oh, I’m a technology entrepreneur,” or something, he would say, “While I’m a technology entrepreneur, recently started reading into the philosophy of science, but what I’m really excited about is playing the piano.” And so what he’s doing here is he’s giving you three potential hooks, where you could be like, “Oh my God, such a coincidence, I started playing the piano recently, let’s host a [0:23:02.1] ____ together”, or, “My God, such a coincidence, my brother is a professor for the philosophy of science.” I should put you in touch. The point here is that the more we can seed these different dots into conversations about our own interests or interests of others, the more we can then, essentially, have other people pick up on this and say, “Oh my God, such a coincidence, this and this and this and this.”
That’s also similar to how we can… Whenever someone tells us about them in our head, we can always go, in terms of, oh, how does this connect to the people I’ve met recently? How does this connect to what I’m really excited about? And what’s really interesting there is that then, in every conversation, even with people we know really well already, serendipity can happen all the time. And so it’s really kind of setting these hooks consciously, and being part of facilitating that. Conversely, and the other way around, we can also ask questions differently. We can… Instead of asking, “What do you do?” We can ask things like, “What’s on your mind?” Or, “What inspired you about X, Y, Z situation?” Or things that really kind of open up this opportunity space, to say, “Let’s get ourselves out of this kind of routine autopilot of just saying the same things,” to what is something that could really open the space?” And that’s similar to really kind of setting serendipity bombs, because it’s a lot about this question of, how do I put mines out there that could go off?
And so… Can go everything. If you’re a job seeker… So some of my students, for example, they have their whole career mapped out, they have their jobs mapped out, their internships, and everything got canceled due to COVID. And then the strategy that we used, essentially, was to say, “Hey, look, identify the top 20 people that you find extremely inspiring in your industry, but also in other industries, and go on LinkedIn, look if you have a contact in common,” so second degree contacts, you can send an in-mail, so you can contact them directly, and then send them super-friendly mails, along the lines of, “Super-inspired by you, a young person who’s like big dreams, X, Y, Z.” And usually what happens is it’s a numbers game. Out of 20 people, three people write back and say, “Oh my God, such a coincidence. We are currently exploring this. We don’t have a job, but if you wanted to do X, Y, Z, we can get back to you.” And the point is these are the people who then, in half year, have those people on the radar to get back to them and say, “Now it fits.” And so it’s really putting ourselves on the radar and laying a couple of these mines out there so that they could go off at any point in time.
Brett McKay: Well, you’re using LinkedIn. That’s an example of using technology, to leverage technology to seed a lot of triggers.
Christian Busch: Exactly, and I feel, especially in COVID times, where so many of us… I mean, I’m here in New York, and I’ve been literally in this flat for the last half year. And when I think about the water cooler moments that have been taken away, all these kind of moments where you could just run into someone at work or in a coffee shop, [0:25:43.6] ____. And so the question of how can we do that virtually? And so I think technology has been really interesting because you can do so many things. I’ve seen some companies, for example, start doing online coffee trials, random coffee trials, where people within the organization give you one or two ideas of when they are free this week, so, “Hey, I have an hour between 12:00 and 1:00.” And then platforms like Slack or other platforms can help randomly match people, and then have them go for a coffee for an hour, give them an inspiring prompt. And so, especially in large organizations where you always have this… When you’re a young person, particularly, you always hope that you might run into the right person, right? And so it’s kind of… That sets you up to a lot of random bumping into the kind of person who could really change your life, change your career. And so we can really accelerate that online as well by facilitating some of these kind of random encounters.
Brett McKay: One thing I can see, can start happening once you start developing the serendipity mindset, where you’re more open to potential serendipity triggers, is you might start noticing too many triggers. And you might start making too many connections, and it’s gonna be hard to figure out, should I take this… Should I take action on this connection? How do you manage serendipity overload?
Christian Busch: That’s such a good question ’cause it’s something I’ve struggled with a lot, in terms of how do you, essentially, not get distracted. How do you make sure that when you have approximately figured out what you wanna write about, that you don’t get pulled away by other really interesting things that could come up somewhere, and things like that. And so one of the things I found extremely useful is to have this North Star, or this idea of, okay, what is the kind of key focus area at this point, and every serendipity that relates to it, great, and everything else gets on the parking lot. So, starting a serendipity journal, where it’s all about saying, “This is kind of like the current North Star or the current story of self,” or just this idea of writing down what is it at the moment that is really meaningful to me, and then saying, “Okay, hey, I can also write down the other areas that pop up, and ideas that pop up, but they get stored here for later, so they’re not being discarded, but they’re just kind of put on the parking lot.” But also really this idea then of having people around to help filter, bouncing ideas off with them. And companies, it’s kind of things like Brain Trust, informal… Three, four people, who just kind of informally evaluate ideas from time to time.
So I feel this kind of filter being extremely important, so to not get distracted and to really follow the North Star that’s there at a certain point. And if we don’t have a North Star, then maybe this kind of idea of, oh, it’s there, like an underlying interest at the moment or a curiosity that these things should somehow relate to… So that it makes sense. And that also makes it easier then, actually, to meaningfully connect dots because we know what to connect them to.
Brett McKay: I wanna backtrack, this idea of seeding triggers. So I just had an idea… One thing that I… We were talking about what you can do with when you’re with people, like you can say, “Well, I’m in… My name is Brett. I got a podcast. I’m interested in this, this,” And then you can… Maybe that’s a potential hook, but I was thinking what you can do to seed triggers for ideas without people. And one thing that I like doing is… To get new ideas for things is go to used bookstores. What I like to use bookstores for is because there’s no algorithm there, right? Because when you go to Amazon, Amazon knows your shopping history, what interests you, and so you end up seeing the same stuff over and over again. There’s a great used bookstore here in Tulsa, Gardner’s bookstore. Every time I go in there, I find three or four books that I never would have saw on Amazon or Barnes & Noble, ’cause they’re… They haven’t been in print for a while, or they just wouldn’t be on the radar. And a few of them actually turned into podcasts. That wouldn’t have even been on the radar if I hadn’t gone in there. And for some reason, whenever I go into a used bookstore, I’m just more open to potential books to pop out at me, that I otherwise would have probably just shut off in any other situation.
Christian Busch: That’s such a cool example ’cause that’s exactly where, in a way, to your point earlier also, how then every situation can become a potential trigger for serendipity because we give ourselves the space for it, but also we, in a way, see that it can be in those kind of calm, silent sources that, in a way, are in books, that are in even maybe the conversation then with a book-seller, or these kind of situations, but even without that conversation, to your point, like the kind of real, more silent source-type approach being very effective, and it seems like that that is something… It sounds like you’ve been using that quite a bit, or…
Brett McKay: Yeah, I go… I try to go once a year, ’cause that seems about the time when they got new stock in. And so we’ll go there, and we’ll just… Books are cheap and we’ll just find lots of… I find a lot of weird stuff too, there’s even old magazines that might have an idea for… Maybe an article that I’ll write sometime later. Another useful place where you can go for a silent serendipity, for me, it’s like a serendipity bomb, is like antique stores or flea markets or… ‘Cause you just find all sorts of weird stuff. And you wouldn’t find on Amazon, you’re not gonna find at the shelves on Walmart. But you’re just gonna find, just old random stuff, and there might be an idea there for something.
Christian Busch: Yeah, and that’s fascinating, ’cause I feel, if you think, throughout history, how really brilliant minds, right, from Da Vinci to others, how they came up with the most brilliant ideas, it would literally be they observe birds or they observe something, and then they’re like, “Oh my god, birds are flying in this and this way. That is what I could use for my research here.” Or you know, this idea that, in a way, we then see also… We see particular patterns that we can maybe transfer also to our area.
And so I feel like there’s so much in there, in terms of giving ourselves the space to observe, to your point, like antiques, and even just sitting out there and observing people in the street, and really kind of seeing that as an opportunity. And one of the things we haven’t talked about yet, but what is so fascinating about serendipity is this incubation time, that, in a way, you might go into the bookstore today and you might read something or just see something. And then, in half a year, when you have a podcast guest who somehow reminds you of it, you’re like… You might have a shower on a Sunday morning, and then it’s like, “Eureka, hey, it fits exactly to what they’re doing.” Or these kind of things where there’s incubation time with serendipity, where, yes, the trigger might happen much earlier than the actually connecting the dots happens, and so on. And so that’s the beauty of it, that, in a way, no moment quote unquote ‘is lost’, because it could always inform serendipity in the future.
Brett McKay: Right, it’s always a potential connection. You never know. So, if you decide… Let’s say you start noticing things, you start making connections. And you’ve put in a filter in place, you’re not scatterbrained, and going in all different directions. But let’s say one of the problems with serendipitous things is that they can lead to a lot of dead ends. You don’t know where it’s gonna go, it could just be a complete dead end. How do you create buffer in your life so that you can handle the potential, I’m not gonna say, setbacks or failures, but something like a serendipitous occasion didn’t work out, how can you manage or sort of be able to absorb that without it completely destroying your career, or whatever?
Christian Busch: Yeah, it’s interesting because it comes a lot… I guess, is the question of how do we build portfolios, so how do we see, essentially, things such as a career, so more as a platform or a portfolio-type, where you say, “Hey, if I’m working for, I don’t know, Goldman Sachs, and I’ve been working on a project that didn’t 100% work out, or something, how can I reposition myself within that company with something that relates to something else, but do that in a way that is low-risk? So, a friend of mine, what she does, for example, is when she works on projects, she always tries to build in that idea that it’s about experimentation, and so she frames… Every new idea, she frames already in a way that is not about I’m betting my whole life on this, I’m betting all my passion on this, I’m betting everything on it in terms of energy, like that’s of course important, but she’s also kind of framing it directly as, this is a new journey, this is something that’s important.
And so she sets herself up for if it doesn’t work out, like she can frame it around experimentation, she can frame it around it’s something that just didn’t work, versus it’s something that makes me a failure, or else. And I feel, unfortunately, we’ve created this culture, I think, of perfection, where everything that doesn’t work out seems to be a sign that someone is a failure and an attribution to someone, versus saying, “No, we actually… All human beings that experiment and that learn… And I think everyone who’s a parent among us probably also can relate to that question. I’m not yet there, but I’ve had a lot of conversations with parents around how do you essentially rubber stamp forward, and learn from kind of things that don’t work? And I feel that kind of mindset, being really about building in the buffer already by the way we frame it, versus like saying, “Oh, if it doesn’t work, everything will fail.” And it’s interesting because maybe also from that other perspective then how life, in itself, constantly leads to some kind of dead ends, in terms of… I feel, when I look back on my life, I’ve had so many quote unquote, ‘Situations of bad luck’, where, in the moment, it felt like really bad luck, but then actually it turned into good luck again.
And so I will never forget actually, when I handed in the first draft of the manuscript, I went to the publisher, and I was like, “Hey, here, here’s the manuscript. I’m so excited about it.” And they were like, “Hey, look, we really like it, but we need more love stories.” And I was like, “I don’t know if I’m… ‘ As the 35-year-old single guy, back then, “If I’m the kind of person to tell people about love.” And they were like, “No, no, but let’s see if we can find a love story.” And so I had a meeting right after that with the next girlfriend of mine, who’s a very close friend of mine now. And so I asked her, so, “Hey, I need a love story. Do you know of any love story?” And she was like, “Well, our story.” And I was like, “What do you mean our story?” And so she was like, “Look, we serendipitously met in a Starbucks, we got into a conversation, we made emerge into a beautiful relationship, and we’re not together anymore, but we put each other on a beautiful trajectory, emotionally. We connected each other to really nice people who then let us into our new life.” So, it’s kind of this whole idea that… Also the question of what is success? Is success of a relationship that you’re still together, or is it that you maybe put each other on different trajectories?
So the point being that bad luck in the moment, breaking up, could also, again, now, lead to good luck in the long run, and so really looking at things from a long-term perspective also I feel helps to derisk the moment because the moment itself probably is not really defining us over a longer period of time.
Brett McKay: No, I think that’s a good point, it’s all about that frame of mind. It all goes back to that framing things. I remember from my own life, when I was in law school, this is when I started ‘The Art of Manliness’, was originally a blog. We still write text content, but then it turned into a podcast, but when I was in law school, I applied for some internships, some summer internships, the big firm here in town. And basically, if you get that summer internship, the idea is they would offer you a job at the end of the summer. I thought I was like… I was gonna be a shoo-in, and I worked really hard, and I didn’t get picked. And I was… At the moment, I was like, “Man, this is terrible. This is devastating. This is awful.” But I think if I had gotten the job offer, I wouldn’t be talking to you right now. I wouldn’t be doing this. I would have been an attorney in Tulsa, doing oil and gas law, or something.
Christian Busch: Yeah, and isn’t that the fascinating thing about life, no? When looking back how, a lot of times, those moments where we felt, “Oh, this is… This is bringing me into a really bad kind of XYZ,” which actually turned out to be, to your point, I’m sure you live a much more meaningful life now. And so it’s really that kind of reframing, but also, in a way, I remember a wonderful friend of mine, he always used to say that if you look at life, and you have 90 years to live, and you really kind of look at one situation like that, a lot of times, when you look back in life, those kind of situations reframe also for yourself what is important to you. It’s an opportunity for self to realize that we are… We think we want something, to your point, you want something in law, but actually you realize maybe something else could be more meaningful, and so taking the long view in life, actually, also helps us to really discover more meaningful things, potentially.
Brett McKay: How can organizations develop the serendipity mindset?
Christian Busch: It’s interesting because… So, a lot of organizations at the moment, especially, are really scrambling to, “Hey, how do we cope with uncertainty? How do we cope with the idea that we can’t plan things out the way we thought we always could?” And so I’m a big fan of developing practices internally that help us to get used to the idea that we have to constantly iterate, but also, back to the point that we discussed earlier, that a clear sense of direction or a sense of where we’re going needs to be kind of combined with those. And so one practice, for example, that I’m a big fan of, is the project funeral or the post-mortem, which is all about this idea that when a project doesn’t work out. So let’s say, in one example, they developed a kind of glass, a window glass where the light wouldn’t reflect. And it was a beautiful technology, but they didn’t realize that people wouldn’t pay a lot of money for that product. When that doesn’t work out, the idea is to say, okay, present it in front of other project managers from other divisions and say what you learn from it. It’s not about celebrating failure. It’s about celebrating the learning from what didn’t work. And so, in this example, they would [0:39:00.0] ____. They would say, “Okay, we learned. Next time we’ll try to understand the market better.”
And you know, then someone in the audience goes like, “Hey, have you considered what this would mean for solar? Have you considered if you would put that technology into a solar device, how amazing, that could absorb energy, and really be effective?” And so that’s how part of the solar division emerged serendipitously, unexpectedly, but in a way, they created a process, a practice that made it possible for people to connect those kind of thoughts because they were incentivized to show us the dots, right? Usually, when something doesn’t work out, we try to hide it away, we try to not talk about it. But by incentivizing people to talk about it, that’s when other people can help connect the dots, and so it’s really those kind of practices, but also simple things, like in meetings, I mentioned earlier how instead of just asking, I don’t know, how were our numbers last week or XYZ, we can also ask things like was there anything last week that really surprised you, that you didn’t expect? And what happens, a lot of times then, is that people start opening their eyes to those things that are not expected, and by doing this, they might find new things.
So, for example, one of my absolute favorites is the potato washing machine. And the potato washing machine was all about a company in China, they produced washing machines, refrigerators, and they got calls from farmers who said, “Your crappy machine is always breaking down.” And so they ask, “Why is it breaking down?” Well, we’re trying to wash our potatoes and it just doesn’t work. And so what would we usually say, we would say, “Well, don’t wash your potatoes in a potato washing machine, and a washing machine is not made for this.” And they did the opposite, they said, “That’s unexpected, but let’s build in a dirt filter and make it a potato washing machine,” which then became one of their products. The point here is that they incentivized a culture where if something new comes in, like an unexpected customer reaction, for example, then they have an investment committee internally that says, “Oh, we can bet on this idea. We can bet on this idea.” And that comes really back to your question earlier also, what we can do as individuals in terms of thinking about portfolios, companies can do the same, where if low probability things pop up, having a filter process that allows us to bet on those things and invest into those unexpected things that come up.
Brett McKay: Wait, I know Google has that, where it’s like they have those projects, people are… They expect or not expect. They encourage their employees to spend 20% of time just exploring stuff that interests them.
Christian Busch: Exactly, and that’s, in a way, really also around this, how do you, as a company, frame the idea that everyone should ideally be incentivized to look out for new things? In the past, we could see, great, we have a Chief Innovation Officer or a research and development department. But in a world that’s so fast-changing, everyone needs to be constantly thinking about how can we do things differently? And I think, especially at the moment, COVID has been so fascinating because you see how breweries, for example, realize that they can’t sell their alcohol to restaurants who closed down, so they kind of said, “Oh wow, maybe we can use that alcohol to produce hand sanitizer.” So you see breweries turning into hand sanitizer companies, and those things. And that’s something R&D department, that works on something for half a year, that’s like the random person in a meeting, saying, “Hey, have we thought about if we can produce hand sanitizer?” So it’s really this idea that everyone, ideally, needs that kind of mindset, because in a fast-changing world, it has to come from everywhere. It can’t just be a couple of people.
Brett McKay: Well, Christian, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Christian Busch: So there’s a homepage, which is theserendipitymindset.com, and I’m on Twitter, ChrisSerendip, and yeah, I think that’s the two major sources, probably.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Christian Busch, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Christian Busch: Thank you so much for having me.
Brett McKay: My guest there was Christian Busch. He’s the author of the book, ‘The Serendipity Mindset,’ it’s available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can find out more information about the book at the website, theserendipitymindset.com. Also check out our shownotes at aom.is/serendipity, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of The AOM podcast. Check at our website at artofmanliness.com, where you can find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles written over the years. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of The AOM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to stitcherpremium.com, sign up. Use code MANLINESS at checkout for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS, and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of The AOM podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple podcast or Stitcher, helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member, who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding you to not only listen to the AOM Podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.