The art and science of creating ‘smart luck’ in an uncertain world

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  • Picture of Christian Busch
    Christian Busch
  • Picture of Leila Milgrim
    Leila Milgrim
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What if being lucky wasn’t just chance but a skill you could master? Christian Busch, FRSA, and Leila Milgrim argue we can all learn to spot opportunities and act on serendipity to lead more joyful, purposeful and successful lives – and the pandemic could be the chance of our lifetimes

COVID-19 has been a stark reminder that throughout history, progress has depended on humans’ ability to make the best out of the unknown. During a pandemic that has changed daily life and exacerbated inequalities, we are witnessing people and businesses embrace the unexpected in creative ways. Distilleries that instead of shutting down made affordable alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Counties that turned ride share programs for senior citizens into emergency services. Insurance companies that turned call centre staff into ‘heroes against loneliness’. And individuals who reinvented themselves and connected to what (and who) is truly important to them.  

In times of crisis, these efforts tend to be driven by necessity. But research across the social and natural sciences shows the greatest improvements and opportunities are often about serendipity – the unexpected good luck resulting from unplanned moments, in which proactive decisions yield positive outcomes. This ‘smart luck’ is different from the ‘blind’ luck that just happens to us (like being born into a loving family). It is a hidden force all around us, from the smallest day-to-day events to life-changing, world-changing, breakthroughs. Wars are won or lost, companies thrive or collapse, love is embraced or shattered on the turn of the unexpected. Whatever we seek – business success, romance, spiritual meaning – we are prone to unexpected, coincidental moments. Mundane encounters, like running into someone at the gym or on a group Zoom call, can change your life. Most of us can point to at least one in our lives.

Even in scientific research, the unexpected is at play. Studies suggest up to half of major inventions – including the microwave, superglue, Post-It notes, and X-rays – came from accidents or coincidences: one chemical spills into another, cells combine in dirty Petri dishes, or there is a chance encounter between experts whose chat sparks insights. Take the drug Sildenafil. When British researchers used it in researching how to cure heart problems, they didn’t expect erections in their male patients. What would most people do? Call it an embarrassing side-effect? Ignore it? Develop another angina cure that avoids it? Instead, the three saw the chance to develop a drug to cure erectile dysfunction. Viagra – one of the most successful inventions ever – was born.

In each case, someone reacted to a serendipity trigger, connected the dots and, crucially, followed through. Once we realize serendipity is not just an event that just happens to us but the process of spotting and connecting the dots, we see bridges where others see holes. A serendipity mindset lets us do that, and it’s a muscle we can develop. In our decade-long research, we have found many of the world’s most inspiring individuals have developed – often subconsciously – a muscle for the unexpected that helps them unleash creativity and resourcefulness and drive success and impact in a fast-changing world. How can we develop this muscle?

First, expect the unexpected. Alertness is key to spotting unexpected events and turning them into positive outcomes. We underestimate how probable the unexpected is, treating life as linear and controllable, though it is filled with twists and turns. Who hasn’t presented their CV as if their life was a rationally organized plan; or their idea as rigorously derived from fact rather than gut feeling? But inventing a narrative for our actions can prevent true learning. Our research shows individuals often feel pressure to suggest they have it ‘all under control’, even though they know they are not always in control. But success is often not about controlling the exact outcome, it can be about balancing a sense of direction with an appreciation of the unknown. This sense of direction – a broader ambition, curiosity, or interest that consciously or subconsciously guides us – helps us spot and connect the dots. This might mean leaving one career path and instead using unexpected situations as opportunities for exploring new directions. Former Unilever CEO Paul Polman takes on a large number of projects that come to him unexpectedly, but is intentional about how they fit his purpose: to help people who can’t help themselves. Other people work a couple of hours per week for someone they admire or for a cause they are passionate about – often that is where they find unexpected opportunities. We start placing our own bets.

This is why serendipity is often cultivated by asking good questions, and being open to unexpected answers. Imagine being at a (virtual) conference and meeting a new person. We might go on auto-pilot and ask the dreaded ‘So what do you do?’ This tends to put the person in a box that is hard to get out of. Positioning ourselves for smart luck means asking open-ended questions like ‘What did you find most interesting about…?’ or ‘What do you enjoy doing?’ These might lead to intriguing – and often serendipitous – outcomes.

But what if we get the dreaded question ourselves? There are ways we can set serendipity hooks – using memorable or engaging talking points – to develop a serendipity mindset and cope with whatever life throws at us. And like a muscle, with appropriate training it will become stronger and part of our natural (and more resilient) way of life.

Professor Dr Christian Busch directs NYU’s CGA Global Economy Program, is a Visiting Fellow at the Marshall Institute, London School of Economics, and the author of Connect the Dots: The Art & Science of Creating Good Luck. Leila Milgrim is the Senior Director of Brand Marketing for the Lifestyle Division at Condé Nast, a writer, and a Masters Candidate at New York University

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