Christian Busch, PhD, is an internationally renowned expert in the areas of innovation and entrepreneurship. He is the Director of the Global Economy Program at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs, and he teaches at the London School of Economics.
Below, Christian shares 5 key insights from his new book, The Serendipity Mindset: The Art and Science of Creating Good Luck. Download the Next Big Idea app to enjoy more audio “Book Bites,” plus Ideas of the Day, ad-free podcast episodes, and more.
1. We create “smart luck” by setting ourselves up for the unexpected.
We often see the unforeseen as a “lucky” or “unlucky” event that just “happened to us.” But when you think back to the things that truly shaped your life, there was usually an active element—you had to do something with it. Imagine that you accidentally spill coffee on someone in a coffee shop, and although you sense that there might be a connection there, you just apologize and move on. But maybe had you talked with that person, who knows? Maybe they could have become your life partner. The same principle applies to business opportunities; “smart luck” is about capturing unexpected moments and turning them into positive outcomes via our own actions.
2. Seed serendipity triggers.
When meeting a new person, many of us ask, “So what do you do?” But we can set serendipity hooks and cast our net wide to achieve luckier outcomes. When someone asks entrepreneur Oli Barrett the dreaded “what do you do” question, he answers something like, “I love connecting people, I set up a company in the education sector, I recently started thinking about philosophy, and I enjoy playing the piano.” He gives four “hooks” so that others can choose the one that most relates to their life: “Oh, what a coincidence, I just started a philosophy salon. Let’s talk!”
3. Instead of pretending we have everything mapped out, what we really need is a good compass.
Despite life’s unexpected twists and turns, we often feel pressured to convey that we “have it all under control”—who hasn’t presented their CV as if their life were a coherent, rationally organized plan? But once we let go of the illusion that we can control everything, serendipity becomes possible. Research shows that inspiring leaders often balance a sense of direction with an appreciation of the unknown. Former Unilever CEO Paul Polman, for example, takes on many projects that come to him unexpectedly, but he is intentional about how they fit his purpose. Having a guiding principle or north star allows us to both deal with the unexpected and filter out distractions.
4. Focus on opportunity rather than limitation.
Once we look at how to make the best of a given situation, the most creative (and serendipitous) solutions emerge. During the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, breweries used their alcohol to make hand sanitizer, design companies started producing face masks, and musical artists captured digital audiences by teaching an instrument online. Taking whatever is at hand, looking at it afresh, and recombining it with other objects, skills, people, or ideas frequently leads to exciting new insights. You discover good luck by reframing your situation from one of passivity and powerlessness to one of activity and opportunity.
5. We need to make accidents meaningful—and create meaningful accidents.
The way we deal with the unexpected often defines who we are, especially during times of crisis. When Best Buy faced a hurricane in Puerto Rico, they worked with the local community and hired private planes to fly their employees to safety. It was the right thing to do, but in the long run, it also increased employee and customer loyalty. In this way, they turned the unexpected from a potential threat into a source of opportunity. So we do not need to have it all figured out in advance; a serendipity mindset will help us navigate the future.
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