Many of us believe that the great turning points and opportunities in our lives happen by chance, that they’re out of our control. Often, we think that successful people—and successful companies and organizations—are simply luckier than the rest of us. Good fortune—serendipity—just seems to happen to them. Is that true? Or are some people better at creating the conditions for coincidences to arise and taking advantage of them when they do? How can we connect the dots of seemingly random events to improve our lives?
In The Serendipity Mindset, Christian Busch explains that serendipity isn’t about luck in the sense of simple randomness. It’s about seeing links that others don’t, combining these observations in unexpected and strategic ways, and learning how to detect the moments when apparently random or unconnected ideas merge to form new opportunities. Busch explores serendipity from a rational and scientific perspective and argues that there are identifiable approaches we can use to foster the conditions to let serendipity grow.
In this interview, I speak to Dr. Christian Busch about serendipity, how it works, and how we can all train our own serendipity ‘muscle’ to turn the unexpected into opportunity. Once we understand serendipity, Busch says, we become curators of it, and luck becomes something that no longer just happens to us—it becomes a force that we can grasp, shape, and hone. Busch’s serendipity mindset offers a clear blueprint for how we can cultivate serendipity to increase innovation, influence, and opportunity in every aspect of our lives.
Q: What is serendipity?
[Christian Busch]: We have spent over a decade researching serendipity and we’ve found that the most successful, inspiring, and interesting people intuitively cultivate practices that do, indeed, bring them ‘luck.’ Our job was to understand the science behind this and to create some form of framework. If we look back on our lives and reflect on the truly serendipitous moments, we can see it is not blind luck. Blind luck is the kind of thing that happens to us – being born into a nice family or being born into wealth, for example. We can’t influence it. Serendipity is about active luck, it’s about the luck we create for ourselves and how we imbue meaning into the unexpected.
Imagine you spill a coffee over someone in a café, they look slightly annoyed, but you sense ‘something’ between you – you have one option which is to apologise, pass them a napkin and move on. The other option is to start a conversation and find that person becomes the love of your life, your co-founder, or a great friend. Our reaction to unexpected moments can determine what happens in the future; that’s a big component of what we perceive as ‘luck.’
Q: Why did you want to research serendipity?
[Christian Busch]: I had a near-death experience early on in life that made me realise how quickly life can be over and hence since then, I’ve been on an extensive search for trying to figure out what is life all about. I realised what I enjoyed doing is connecting people and ideas and the sparks that come from that and that guided me a little bit into entrepreneurship, community building and then research.
Serendipity popped up everywhere – not just in life, but in my research. I wanted to learn about it, write about it, and see whether there were real frameworks for serendipity that we could all apply in our lives.
Q: How are we blocking serendipity from our lives?
[Christian Busch]: We are held back by our deep, underlying fears. Fears of rejection, fears of being the imposter. Understanding ourselves better can really help us see when, and where, we may have denied ourselves serendipity. You could be in a meeting, where you had an unexpected idea, and didn’t bring it up because you didn’t feel ready, worthy, or confident. You could have bumped into an inspirational person whom you saw at a conference and didn’t spark up a conversation….
We need to reframe these fears and work on regret minimisation. If you didn’t take that action, spark up that conversation, or try that idea, would you regret it? if you would- then don’t hesitate, do it. We often think far too much about the consequences of rejection, rather than being open-minded to the fact that the worst thing that can usually happen is not, indeed, that bad. These self-limiting beliefs extend to underestimating the likelihood of the unexpected! We airbrush serendipity out of our stories – we tell stories step-by-step and forget that life is a squiggle, not a line.
Q: What’s the science behind serendipity?
[Christian Busch]: We study serendipity in several ways. One way is to put people into the exact-same situations and observe their reactions, and outcomes, over time. We also engage in qualitative research on these experiments to try and understand the patterns, and to create frameworks for serendipity.
There is one experiment, which is a bit more entertaining, and which is one of my favourites. Scientists took a group of people who self-identify as lucky and self-identify as unlucky. The former group are those who tend to say good things happen to them, and the latter are people who tend to say that bad things happen to them (accidents and so on). They will tell these individuals to walk down the street and go into a coffee shop, grab a coffee, sit down, and then have a conversation. What they don’t’ tell them is that there are hidden cameras along the street. Inside the coffee shop, there’s some money left on the ground, and an empty seat next to someone who is an ‘extremely successful businessperson’ the type of person who can make big ideas happen. The lucky person walks down the street, sees the £5 note, picks it up, goes into the coffee shop, and sits next to the businessperson, they have a conversation, exchange cards, and leave thinking they’ve potentially had a great opportunity. The unlucky person ignores the money, and sits next to the person without making conversation, to them, the whole experience was a non-event. The lucky person didn’t manifest that interaction! They had an open mind and an alertness to the unexpected.
We can literally see in science that having an open mind, an openness to the unexpected, and the right goals and direction create a greater likelihood of success. This mindset literally gives people the permission to look- and act- on the unexpected. We need to understand how to connect the dots, and not assume things just fall from the sky.
Q: What can we all do to introduce more serendipity into our lives?
[Christian Busch]: Serendipity is about meaningful accidents, or how people make sense of something that they’re told, see, or experience. Serendipity often links to how we build meaningful connections with each other.
Just as one example, it may be that you meet someone at a conference, and they ask what you do. Instead of saying ‘I’m a technology entrepreneur…’ you might say, ‘well, I run a technology business, but I love philosophy and playing the piano…’ the person you’re speaking to now has a few more dots to connect! Maybe they have a sister who teaches philosophy at a university and might invite you to guest lecture… maybe they love the piano too and you spark a conversation about that and really connect. It takes active engagement in conversation to do this – you can’t be passive and on autopilot. It takes effort to seed conversation and build connections.
You could go to a fishing village in France, and ask the fisherwoman, ‘what do you do?’ she could say, ‘well… I’m a fisherwoman! I catch fish!’ but if you ask that same person, ‘what do you love?’ she might say, ‘I enjoy the endlessness of the sea, and the peace and quiet on my own…’ This might then spark an unexpected conversation about something like The Little Prince, which is a book exploring the endlessness of the cosmos and the universe… Asking slightly different questions can help us create joyful, meaningful, and serendipitous conversations. The more dots we give the other to join in us, and vice versa, the better things can happen.
Q: Do we need to broaden our interests, to have more serendipity?
[Christian Busch]: I’ve always felt we need far more philosophers in the world. I think every MBA program should have a philosophy course that teaches us how to ask big questions. Asking big questions can help us dive a bit deeper behind the symptom, to see the root cause.
Look at someone like Leonardo da Vinci, he was interested in so many different areas, and connected the dots to create his amazing work. He combined these different streams of knowledge, realising the patterns in each are very similar and was able to create great art and invention.
In more recent history, look at Steve Jobs. He took calligraphy at university, and applied it to create the user interface for the Mac! He perhaps wouldn’t have had the insights he had if it weren’t for his openness to take arts courses. The more we understand, the more we can ask questions – the more we’re able to see the apple falling might be gravity, not just an apple falling!
Q: Can serendipity help us to become more resilient?
[Christian Busch]: For many of us, what might seem like a very tough situation, can often become an inflexion point for something more interesting. There are many companies that almost went bankrupt before realising they could build something even more exciting. There are relationships that didn’t work out and may have seemed like it was the end of happiness for you- but that enabled you to find a person with whom you could be truly happy. Your approach and attitude to life make it more likely that situations will not define you, but rather, that they will become inflexion points to more interesting journeys. I’m a huge fan of Viktor Frankl. In his book Man’s Search for Meaning he talks about his experiences in a concentration camp – where there is objectively and subjectively no meaning or hope; if you are there, you know will most likely die. He was determined to create meaning in that situation – he wanted to write a book – and was determined to speak to other prisoners, to find meaning even in this situation.
This is an important part of serendipity. We have to imbue meaning into situations, even crises. Whatever you are going through, could lead you to something even better. You cannot often control what happens to you- but you can control your response to it.
Q: What can we all do to encourage more serendipity in our lives?
[Christian Busch]: We can all do things differently to make our lives more serendipitous. We can ask people different questions, we can travel different routes, we can think differently about what happens to us. Every conversation we’re a part of…. We can contribute one point, one idea, one story….
You can even ask more questions about yourself in different situations. Say you’re reading a book on physics- it may be that instead of just learning about physics, you start to ask what that book means for physics! It encourages you to read differently. It’s active…. Not passive…
In a way, serendipity is about taking agency over your life more!