Despite my cynicism, I admit that their enthusiasm and marketing wiles got my attention and I’ve been noodling on the concept of planned serendipity or manufactured luck since it re-emerged in the collective. The practice interests me for a few reasons. One, I pay a lot of attention to startup stories with at least two founders because I’m always curious how they found each other and how they came up with the idea. Many times you hear the founders explain, ‘we were lucky and happened to have been doing X when Y occurred.’ Two, I’m considering a tech startup myself and wondering how I might bring more serendipitous experiences into my business. Lastly, I’m wondering if serendipity truly can be planned or manufactured, then how to activate it on demand.
Serendipity – Only for the Attentive and Clever
A few months ago I experienced what I believe to be a serendipitous moment. I was participating in the Rhizome’s Seven on Seven conference with an artist I was paired with named Cameron, and we were sitting in a drab looking conference room with no windows in a Venture Capitals’ office that we were assigned to, pondering how to get our hands on a 3D printer for our project, when we decided to get coffee. We ran into one of the VC partners while filling our coffee cups in the break room and he asked us how our project was going. We answered him sort of truthfully, chatted for a bit and just as we were leaving and going back to our room, I half jokingly asked if they had a 3D Printer we could use for our art project. The VC man smiled and replied that they funded the 3D printing company, Makerbot, and had some in a conference room down the hall. Wide-eyed, we followed him down the corridor and into a conference room that had windows with a view of NYC and two Makerbots ready for us to fire up. Right before that exchange happened Cameron and I were contemplating quitting the whole art project. I’m not sure if you would label this experience luck, a happy accident or something else. All I know is that if I hadn’t said something, that exchange wouldn’t have happened.
Some people in my circles are convinced that I know everyone in LA. That’s obviously not true, but because I blog a little bit about things I’m passionate about; women in tech, the LA tech startup scene, the Maker Movement, I’m constantly getting contacted by people and introduced to potential conspirators who are inspired by or can relate to what I’m interested in and in pursuit of. The network of people with related interests that is being built up means that my chances for serendipitous moments increases exponentially each time that I make a connection. Some connections bring stronger and more beneficial happy accidents and some more quantifiable than others. I spend 90% of my time building up relationships that are tied closely to my interests and work so that I am in contact with the right or relevant people. The other 10% are reserved for high school friends and people who make me laugh.
One of the most quantifiable serendipitous experiences that I can share is the time when we were trying to find a permanent home for the LA Makerspace. The planning committee met regularly every couple of weeks and invited people who wanted to participate in exploring possibilities. Someone that joined us happened to be working on a project where they were building out a maker-like community and were able to grant us some free rent. It was more than what we were striving for and we felt lucky. That opportunity wouldn’t have presented itself if we didn’t build up a carefully curated community of people that collectively manifested a fortunate stroke of serendipity.
‘Scientists are not passive recipients of the unexpected; rather, they actively create the conditions for discovering the unexpected and have a robust mental toolkit that makes discovery possible.’ – Kevin Dunbar and Jonathan Fugelsang
A couple of weeks ago at the YxYY conference in Palm Springs, the organizers and attendees relayed various serendipitous moments that occurred. As an attendee I did not experience any myself, unless you consider the idea some of us had to make a Bro Bar, an energy bar for bros, to be a happy accident. That being said, the seeds could have been planted at the conference and the opportunity forthcoming. Time will tell.
What I have learned in my exploration of serendipity, is the importance of carefully choosing your connections and always nurturing them. Having 5000 contacts on LinkedIn isn’t going to automagically bring you the serendipity you hope for. You need to decide who you want to have in your inner circles and continuously build those relationships up. I don’t necessarily believe in luck, I think that you make your own fortuitous moments by surrounding yourself with the right people and creating conditions in your life for opportunities to more easily come across your desk. Whether you believe in the concept or not, you can’t deny the simple fact that it’s not the collection but rather the careful curation of your network of associates that share your beliefs and interests that is the magic sauce that allows you to tap into greater possibilities, and those opportunities can sometimes come out of left field when you least expect them.
One last piece of advice that I have come to understand, you need to be very careful that you aren’t too focused on your goal or a desired outcome because that is when you may miss important discoveries or opportunities; if you are adhering too strongly to expectations you may actually obstruct serendipity altogether.
To planned serendipity and beyond!