Issue 56

The Myth of Serendipity

Bálint Ákos
Trainer @ M&Co Training

The idea that luck plays an important role in the field of innovation is well known. Just google "lucky inventions" and you will receive tons of lists with all kinds of novelties that were invented by chance – at least the authors of the lists say so. However, I have another opinion. Briefly, I believe serendipity does not exist.

Okay, I know this statement is a bit radical. Everything depends on how somebody defines “serendipity”. I don’t want to start a semantics debate, I just want to show that “luck” has a much lesser role than what is commonly believed.

Take for instance one of the most famous examples of serendipitous discoveries: Alexander Fleming’s discovery of antibiotics. His assistant, Meril Pryce, accidentally left his Petri dish open, and the bacteria population inside was killed by the Penicillium spores present in the air in the room. Accidentally, in this case, means without an envisaged purpose. Can we call this serendipity or not? Well, I am absolutely sure that this was not the only microbial colony destroyed by mold in history. Many people were annoyed by this kind of incident, but only Fleming (and maybe a few other researchers who were not vocal enough to be heard and remembered) was able to draw the necessary conclusions and create the antibiotics. Why?

“With his rough humor he reproached Pryce for obliging him to re-do a long job of work, and, while speaking, took several old cultures and removed the lids. Several of the cultures had been contaminated with mold – a not unusual occurrence.”

I think that part of the answer hides in the characteristics of creative people. From the many qualities such persons have, take these: flexibility, curiosity, susceptibility and perseverance. Other people simply discarded the Petri dish when they found mold inside, but Fleming did not. He was curious and wanted to understand what happened and followed the research direction indicated by the circumstances. In other words, a usual event met an unusual personality.

“What struck me was that he didn’t confine himself to observing, but took action at once. Lots of people observe a phenomenon, feeling that it may be important, but they don’t get beyond being surprised – after which, they forget. […] I remember another incident, also from the time when I was working with him. One of my cultures had not been successful, and he told me to be sure of getting everything possible out of my mistakes. That was characteristic of his whole attitude to life.” (Professor Merlin Pryce about Fleming)

“Fleming put the Petri dish aside. He was to keep it as a precious treasure for the rest of his life. He showed it to one of his colleagues: “Take a look at that”, he said, “it’s interesting – the kind of thing I like; it may well turn out to be important.” The colleague in question looked at the dish, then handed back with a polite: “Yes, very interesting.”

On the other hand, psychologists have something to say about the creative process too. In 1926 Graham Wallas introduced a model that was widely accepted later. According to this model, the named process has 4 stages.

Obviously, these four stages are not isolated from each other, but are strongly related. There is no strict succession; rather the mind is continuously jumping back and forth among them. Nevertheless you can’t test an idea which doesn’t exist.

Put differently, a large amount of the creative work is done by the unconscious mind – this is the incubation phase. We feed the unconscious mind with all kinds of information and this perpetually creates all kinds of associations. Very importantly, as opposed to the conscious mind, here, the information is not divided into “relevant” and “irrelevant”. The unconscious mind plays around happily with everything it gets and produces countless combinations. Most of these combinations will be useless, dull or conventional, but there is a chance that a few will turn out to be brilliant and novel.

“Fleming had for a long time been hunting for a substance which should be able to kill the pathogenic microbes without damage to the patient’s cells.”

(All quotes are from André Maurois: The Life of Sir Alexander Fleming)

Once I experienced this process in detail myself, when I had to draw up an incentivisation system for my company. I started the whole job by reading articles and watching videos about best practices, surveys, articles about what other companies had done and also about the psychological background. I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel. I just picked out the items applicable to our case and organized them into a coherent whole. It might sound easy, but for me, at that time it was not easy at all. I struggled with it for several weeks.

However, at a certain point, this work was interrupted by some other, more urgent tasks and the whole thing was put off for a week or two. Then, on a weekend, I had a long drive, and, suddenly, I noticed some activity related to this topic. I can’t describe it better. It was a schizoid state: one part of my mind was observing what the other part was doing. I was able to watch as the parts of the puzzle fell into their places, almost effortlessly. When I arrived at my destination, the whole system was ready in my head, I just had to write it down and polish it here and there. It was an amazing and a little bit freaky episode. The circumstances of this occurrence are equally important. Without entering in details, these half-automatic activities, like driving, running, taking a shower, do foster creativity.

What do all these mean in practice?

The Prezi offices illustrate it the best. The employees are encouraged to build their own cabinets of curiosities from objects that are important for them for one reason or another. “Things that make you something come to mind”, was said in an interview by Szabolcs Somlai-Fischer, one of the founders of the startup. While the Google office is a big playground, he added, their premises have the role to inspire people. The success of Prezi confirms this expectation.

It is also a well-known phenomenon that when you are stuck with a problem, the best thing you can do is to leave it alone for a while. After a short break, everything goes smoother. Now, this is why.

So, looking at it from this perspective, does serendipity exist or not? The "serendipitous" event is just an event like any other. The results are not due to the event but to the person involved. If you are curious and devoted to a certain goal, you will experience many such events.


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