Are you wrestling with what seems to be an unsurmountable problem or trying to gain insight from an overwhelming amount of data?
One approach you might try is walking away for awhile to do or think about something else. You could gain new perspective. Or, perhaps something serendipitous will happen.
Serendipity is defined by Webster’s New World Dictionary as “an apparent aptitude for making fortunate discoveries accidentally.” The word was originated by Horace Walpole after "The Three Princes of Serendip", a Persian folk tale about three young princes who made happenstance discoveries.
A couple of famous serendipitous events we're all familiar with include Newton's discovery of the principle of gravity when an apple fell on his head and Archimedes’s bath time "aha-moment" about how to measure the purity of gold by using the principle of specific gravity. In both cases, Newton and Archimedes were in a relaxed state of mind (resting under a tree, taking a bath, respectively) when a chance event (falling apple, overflowing bathtub) inspired each to solve a problem they had been wrestling with.
In a Sixty Minutes segment entitled “The Eyes Have It”, aired on January 4, 2004 reporter Steve Kroft profiled the work of Professor John Stilgoe, who teaches courses on the American landscape at Harvard University. Professor Stilgoe teaches his students to learn by slowing down and acutely observing their surroundings. For the high achieving undergraduates whose smart phones, i-pods, and computers are an ubiquitous part of daily life, this is no small feat. Their academic lives have been shaped by rigorous verbal and mathematical training that have prepared them to excel in standardized testing while their social lives have been shaped by structured activities. Taking a meandering walk just to look around and observe is close to an out of body experience for many of them.
“I try very hard in this university, which selects students based almost entirely on how well they do with words and numbers, to teach them that there’s another way of knowing,” Stilgoe said. In assigning observation projects, Stilgoe is purposefully vague. “The vaguer the directions, the more likely the opportunity for serendipity to happen. Drives them nuts.”
So what does all this have to do with solving problems or gaining insights?
In our work lives, we’re in the business of creating value for our internal or external customers by applying our experience and knowledge to the business problems they can’t solve themselves. Sometimes we are faced with vague instructions or problem descriptions. Sometimes we have clear problem definitions, but are unclear about the best path forward.
Many of us in our daily lives feel compelled to always be busy, to run from one appointment to another, and to feel frustrated when we can’t solve a problem quickly.
Maybe we’re not creating space in our lives for the chance events and observations that could help us solve problems, or at least make our day to day lives less stressful and more enjoyable.
So how can we create more opportunities for serendipity? Here are some ideas:
- Next time you’re frustrated, take a walk around the block. Pay attention to your surroundings. Look for something you’ve never seen before.
- Take a child to the zoo. Listen to their observations. It can be amazing to see things fresh through a little person’s eyes.
- Take a break in your chair. Close your eyes and listen to the classical musical station. Let your mind go (but don’t fall asleep).
- Visit another country via the internet. Type in “Tuvalu” at the Google line and you’ll be transported to the South Pacific.
- Go to a lecture on a topic you know nothing about.
- Take a bath (hey, it worked for Archimedes!).
I’m sure that you can think of many more options – as you can see, it doesn’t have to take much time. The key point is to pursue an activity that allows you to relax and open your mind up to new possibilities.
Serendipity by definition involves chance. By creating more opportunities for serendipity in your life, you increase the probabilities of chance discoveries happening. At the very least, you’re bound to have some fun and interesting things may happen that wouldn’t otherwise occur!
And who knows -- you may come up with the answer that's been eluding you.
I wish you happy serendipitous trails!