#sxswlucky – The New Serendipity?

Serendipity…luck…fortune…#sxswlucky…I recently found myself in a landslide of remarkable tweets all around the topic of serendipity. What had happened?? It’s called SXSW 2013, the annual South by Southwest conference and festival, that went down in Austin, TX, at the time. It lasted from March 8 to 17 and left quite a footprint on Twitter. What really stuck out to me though was this serendipity buzz that had originated from the panel discussion “The New Serendipity?”.

It’s In Everything We Do

I wasn’t at SXSW 2013 nor was I at this specific panel, but the reactions of people captured my curiosity. Serendipity is topic that I’ve had profound interest in over the past few years. Anybody working in entrepreneurial environments probably has this predisposition. My first concious encounter was watching Steven Johnson’s TED talk “Where good ideas come from”. Ever since, I’ve been alert to serendipitous events in almost everything I do. Whether in running the Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship, consulting startups, organizing networking events, blogging or whatever have you. Especially my decision to open a founders’ coffee shop involved serendipity on many levels. Everything I do in part comes about as a result of it, profits from it, or in the latter case had the implicit purpose to produce it. My own experienced moved me to write an #sxswlucky summary. These are ideas and thoughts that shouldn’t be lost. Please feel invited to comment and add to the discussion!

Can We Be More Lucky?

Of course, we are all asking ourselves “how can we be more lucky”? The obvious answer, I anticipate, won’t ever be definite…that’s why it’s called luck after all. So I doubt that there is a surefire recipe. However, in the early 1990s Richard Wiseman embarked on a ten-year study to lift the secrets of good fortune, the results of which where later published as the luck factor. The study examined a pool of 400 people and surprisingly showed that people really are responsible for their being lucky, at least to an extent. Wiseman discovered four principles: “[People] are skilled at creating and noticing chance opportunities, make lucky decisions by listening to their intuition, create self-fulfilling prohesies via positive expectations, and adopt a resilient attitude that transforms bad luck into good” (Wiseman R., 2003, p 3). So, apparently we do have some influence. But let’s see what the powerful “The New Serendipity?” panel can add.

“The New Serendipity?” Panel

The panel discussion had an explosive line-up and, from what I could absorb, didn’t fail to deliver on its promise. Colin Raney (designer and location director at IDEO), John Perry Barlow (lyricist, essayist, co-founder of Electronic Frontier Foundation and former Dead songwriter), Joichi Ito (director of MIT Media Lab), and Kevin Rose (Partner at Google Ventures, founder at Digg, Revision3, and Milk) participated in the panel. They provided rich insights that I broke down into five basic luck principles.

The 5 Luck Principles

The following is the recipe I recommend to increase your chances of getting lucky breaks in life and business. Please feel free to utter your thoughts, give feedback and discuss these principles (I claim neither absolute accuracy nor completeness).

Go ahead and do stuff: “It’s important to commit to something and go and build it. That will attract others.” (Kevin Rose) It’s kind of like the saying ‘You have to be prepared to get lucky’. What people really mean is that you have to be in a position to react upon fortunate incidents when they arise. Simply by being active you put yourself out there and increase your chances to encouter luck.

Network! Especially with weak-ties and the unknown: “They used to say fortune prefers the prepared mind, now it’s fortune prefers the networked mind.” (John Perry Barlow) Look for people who are different than you to get totally new impulses. The classic Sociology piece The Strength of Weak Ties (Mark S. Granovetter, 1973) fits perfectly here. It emphasizes the power of network ties, which are the sole connector between highly fertile and dense networks. These weak-ties at the edges are key as they bridge the disconnect between networks. (A great opportunity for this kind of networking is co-working, which definitely has serendipitous elements to it.)

Diversity is key, not focus: “You lose peripheral vision when you focus.” (Joichi Ito) It’s like in basketball, where you have to see the ball and your opponent at all times to prevent backdoor-cuts and easy baskets. If you focus too intensely on the ball you lose sight of every thing else. More than just avoiding focus, we have to push to increase diversity. In order to increase the chance of serendipitous events, it’s important to get as many influences as possible. When creativity and innovativeness are needed, bringing different individuals, industries, and science fields together productive collaboration is often most promising.

Be generous: “Selfishness kills serendipity. We create more luck through generosity.” (Colin Raney) There is a good reason the Silicon Valley community lives by the “Paying forward” mantra. Engage with other people and show that you’re not necessarily in it because of some underlying incentive, but because you truly want to help. Helping others will pay off big-time for you someday.

Don’t kill your inner child: “As we gain wisdom, how do we retain a beginner’s mind?” (Colin Raney) Think about when people are most creative and open throughout their life. It’s usually when they are little children, who just do stuff without fear of being wrong. Simply growing up (in your head) and receiving education in our strict and standardized schooling-system makes us increasingly lose our creative geniuses as Sir Ken Robinson puts it. Also, becoming an expert in something will oftentimes narrow your thinking in the long-run and kill serendipity. So have the courage to remain a child.

So, what will you make of it?


For the more interested reader: Below, I have collected all additional quotes as they are tweeted.

Kevin Rose: @kevinrose “You get a lot of pitches that are the next Pinterest, for cats.”; “Think about the kind of constraints to apply to things, to see what happens.”; “Idea to actually building something is a difficult jump for some people.”

John Perry Barlow: @JPBarlow “Teach your kids to ALWAYS talk to strangers.”; “Acts of generosity will repay themselves abundantly in totally unexpected ways.”; “Steve Jobs had a ‘weird degree of focus’.”; “You also have to be able to reward failure.”

Joichi Ito: @Joi “It’s important to be weird.”; “While you cannot plan ahead, we are all connected. If you need it to happen, it will.”; “The cost of collaboration is so low.”; “As you get older, your memory goes down, but your pattern recognition goes up.”; “I’m trying to heavily increase diversity and serendipity at the Lab.”; “Going to confusing places and seeing the patterns and mapping them back into your space helps to create new ties.”; “You need to be able to pivot OUT of commitments. Make sure commitment doesn’t mean you get stuck in a rut.”; “Art/design, science/technology–you need to have all, and overlap.”

Colin Raney: @Colin Raney “Opportunities are created through strong relationships. Serendipity lives at the edges of the network.”; “How can we use technology to find what we are not looking for?”; “Serendipity hates selfishness”; “Uniqueness, impact, and magic! Keys to serendipitous ideas.”

More sources: Twitter (#sxswlucky), www.writeonnetwork.com/blog/, olegkurnosov.com/post/45061643696/sxsw-the-new-serendipity-social-relationships, storify.com/jvilhena/the-new-serendipity?

Photo Credits: Umberto Salvagnin, Wikimedia Commons



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