Serendipity; seeing bridges where others see gaps, taking actions to create smart luck

Andy Warhol and Stephen Bruce at Serendipity 3, circa 1962. Credit: John Ardoin
Andy Warhol and Stephen Bruce at Serendipity 3, circa 1962. Credit: John Ardoin

Serendipity is an unplanned fortunate discovery, it is a common occurrence throughout the history of product invention and scientific discovery.

The first noted use of "serendipity" in the English language was by Horace Walpole on 28 January 1754. In a letter he wrote to his friend Horace Mann, Walpole explained an unexpected discovery he had made about a lost painting of Bianca Cappello by Giorgio Vasari by reference to a Persian fairy tale, The Three Princes of Serendip.

The princes, he told his correspondent, were "always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of." The name comes from Serendip, an old name for Sri Lanka (Ceylon), hence Sarandib by Arab traders.

The word has been exported into many other languages, with the general meaning of “unexpected discovery” or “fortunate chance”.

The term "serendipity" is often applied to inventions made by chance rather than intent. As Christian Busch describes serendipity in his Psyche article How to be lucky;

Most of us think that luck just happens (or doesn’t) but everyone can learn to look for the unexpected and find serendipity. Human beings find comfort in certainty. We form governments, make calendars, and create organizations; and we structure our activities, strategies, and plans around these constructs. These routines give us the satisfaction of knowing that, by having a plan, there’s a means of it coming to fruition. But there’s another force, constantly at play in life, that often makes the greatest difference to our futures: the ‘unexpected’ or the “unforeseen”. If you think about it, you already look out for the unexpected every day, but perhaps only as a defense mechanism. For example, whenever you use a pedestrian crossing on a busy road, you look out for the unexpected driver who might race through the red light. That “alertness” to, or awareness of, the unexpected is at the center of understanding the science of (smart) luck and exploiting it to your benefit.

The term "serendipity" is often applied to inventions made by chance rather than intent.

Andrew Smith, editor of TheOxford Companion to American Food and Drink, has speculated that most every day products had serendipitous roots, with many early ones related to animals. The origin of cheese, for example, possibly originated in the Nomad practice of storing milk in the stomach of a dead camel that was attached to the saddle of a live one, thereby mixing rennet from the stomach with the milk stored within.

Other examples of serendipity in inventions include:

🗒 The Post-It Note, which emerged after 3M scientist Spencer Silver produced a weak adhesive, and a colleague used it to keep bookmarks in place on a church hymnal.

👨‍🔬 Silly Putty, which came from a failed attempt at synthetic rubber.

🎩 The use of sensors to prevent automobile airbags from killing children, which came from a chair developed by the MIT Media Lab for a Penn and Teller magic show.

♨️ The microwave oven. Raytheon scientist Percy Spencer first patented the idea behind it after noticing that emissions from radar equipment had melted the candy in his pocket.

🔬 The Velcro hook-and-loop fastener. George de Mestral came up with the idea after a bird hunting trip when he viewed cockleburs stuck to his pants under a microscope and saw that each burr was covered with tiny hooks.

🍭 The Popsicle, whose origins go back to San Francisco where Frank Epperson, age 11, accidentally left a mix of water and soda powder outside to freeze overnight.

💉 The antibiotic penicillin, which was discovered by Sir Alexander Fleming after returning from a vacation to find that a Petri dish containing staphylococcus culture had been infected by a Penicillium mold, and no bacteria grew near it.

So what to do?


Even being open to the unexpected is the key to create smart luck, there is another force in play: preparation.

This is partly about removing the barriers to serendipity, both mental (your mindset) and physical (the spaces you live and interact in), such as: overloaded schedules; senseless meetings; and the inefficiencies throughout your day that rob you of time, curiosity and a sense of joy.

You can prepare by strengthening your mental readiness to connect with opportunity, and creating an environment that enables the use of your skills and available resources to act on the moment. An unprepared mind often discards unusual encounters, thereby missing the opportunities for smart luck.

✅ Accept that the unexpected happens all the time to start ‘seeing’ good things over bad and begin to view them as a potential benefit or opportunity rather than a threat.

✅ Resist your urge to find familiarity in the unknown, and to control anomalies. If you continually airbrush the many unexpected events out of your (hi)stories, you’ll miss the importance of the unpredictable parts and therefore fail to recognise – let alone legitimise – the critical role that serendipity will play in your future.

✅ Having the mental agility to improvise, to see how a tool could be used in a new way, is essential to building your serendipity mindset. Your own creativity will thrive when you abandon the physical and mental tools with which you’re most familiar, and find new ways to work or think.

✅ If you are new to journalling, don’t overthink it. Set a timer for two minutes, then list out in two columns the parts of your day that led to positive outcomes and the parts of the day that did not. As you break down your day into these segments, examine the parts that worked really well for you, and the ones that were inefficient, stressful or unfulfilling.

✅ We lead unique and complex lives. If you clean up the minutiae, they’ll no longer take up space in your daily life, and you’ll have more cognitive, emotional and physical attention to dedicate to the more important stuff. Declutter your life.

✅ Try ‘reframing’ mistakes, challenges, and setbacks as opportunities. What appeared to be ‘bad luck’ in the moment turned into ‘good luck’ by reframing the situation.

Serendipity is a process. It’s an opportunity to turn chance into good fortune through your own efforts, which doesn’t always happen in a flash. It often requires an incubation period. Be patient, knowing that some of your efforts could result in an immediate spark while others will be more like planting seeds, for which the fruits of your labour will pleasantly surprise you in the future.

Learn more

→ Christian Busch’s bookThe Serendipity Mindset: The Art and Science of Creating Good Luck (2020) is the first comprehensive science-based approach on how to cultivate serendipity – ‘smart luck’.

→ In this online talk for the American Psychological Association from 2020, he discussed how the science of serendipity can help turn uncertainty into opportunity.

→ In this article for the World Economic Forum, he showed how new business models and opportunities are emerging in the wake of COVID-19 uncertainty.

→ In this article for LSE Business Review, Harry Barkema, a professor of management, and Christian Busch discuss how, in the context of extreme resource constraints, reframing is possible – and what we can learn from social entrepreneurs in Sub-Saharan Africa.

→ In this article for the Harvard Business Review, he explains how to set ‘serendipity bombs’ and cast ‘serendipity hooks’ in order to cultivate serendipity.

— That’s it for this edition. Here is a hand-picked collection of the best product management and UX conferences in 2021. See you next month.

Tools & Resources

✨ Ethical tools for designers

These tools will help you uncover, explore and discuss the ethical aspects of your designs. The tools are grouped based on the skill they help you develop and can be used in different phases of the design process. On the website, if you click on a tool you'll find the materials and instructions you need to get started right away.

🧐 The Universal Score is a framework for evaluating inclusion and belonging. Use it to think critically about how inclusive your decisions are, so you can design and build a better experience that works for everyone. Choose a product, service, or journey to test with a series of questions on 5 areas of inclusivity: mental wellbeing, belonging, physical needs, neurodiversity and putting people first. Then get your final score with practical recommendations to help you raise your game.

🃏 Cards for Humanity is a practical tool for inclusive design, which deals you two random cards, a person and a trait. Your challenge: work out how you can meet their needs.

Echoes is a web app for exploring your Spotify streaming stats and discover more amazing music. You can get insights into your listening habits with top artists, top tracks and create playlists.

🌳 Forest is an app helping you stay away from your smartphone and stay focused on your work. Forest team partners with a real-tree-planting organization, Trees for the Future, to plant real trees on Earth. When our users spend virtual coins they earn in Forest on planting real trees, the team donates to our partner and creates planting orders.

🌎 Flatten the Curve by SafetyWing provides containment measures, testing and treatment information, and travel restrictions around the globe. Are you waiting on a country to open to travel? Or perhaps concerned a country you are planning to go to will close it's borders? They recently added the ability to sign up for email updates on country openings/closures. Just head to flattenthecurve.global and click on the "Get updates" tab at the bottom.


The State of Design


✤ 5 thinking tools to add to your metacognitive toolbox

Anne-Laure Le Cunff | Ness Labs

✤ Sleep equity: good for night owls and early birds

Mike Sholars | Dropbox Blog

✤ The hidden cost of design complexity

Julien Zmiro | Inside Intercom

✤ The ethics of UX: when is it good design and when are you just tricking people?

Mimi Launder | DigitalArts

— That’s it for this edition. See you with the next one.