Serendipity in Entrepreneurship

When I’m mentoring or consulting with entrepreneurs, I’m always intrigued by what they’re reading… Why? It gives me a great indication of where they’re getting their inspiration from; and I’ve noticed a real change in the past few years..

The Cult of the Business Book!

A passing examination of the contemporary entrepreneurs reading list is sort of like playing a very detailed game of buzz-word-bingo.

Alongside the ‘staple’ content of Tony Robbins, Deepak Chopra, et. Al – and classics about sales, winning friends and influencing people, short work weeks, and so-forth- there is a narrowing of diversity, where every available inspiration ‘slot’ is filled with books on leadership, success, wealth-generation, lean-businesses and the like. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not against these books, in-fact many of them make their way onto the compulsory reading-list for the students I teach however, and this is important…. If you want to be a great entrepreneur, you need to broaden your intellectual horizons.

A $billion Calligraphy Course

It may sound like-urban legend, but in fact it was a calligraphy course at university that really spurred Steve Jobs to form his vision for the Mac, and spark the creation of one of the richest companies in history.

I’ve been lucky enough to meet many people who worked closely with him in the earliest days of his career, and many attribute a significant portion of his vision to the diversity of his interests; arts, spirituality, humanism, history and more.

In fact, the vast majority of people I’ve met over the years who’ve achieved massive success are aligned in that fact. Intuitively you may think these individuals are all about business, but the truth is that they’re often very diverse in their interests (of which business is just one).

It’s Not Just Dinner Conversation

Being a ‘renaissance’ man or woman is not just about being an interesting dinner party guest, there is a significant amount of academic research (in the field of serendipity) which suggests that diversity of interests directly contributes to our creativity, innovative capacity and- dare I say it- entrepreneurial ability. The basic principle is to engulf your brain in as much variety as your interests allow, creating an environment rich for happy intellectual accidents and insights to happen.

This does make sense, given we know how much of our brain is dedicated to pattern recognition. The more dots you give your brain, the more of them it will connect!

Much of the research on this topic also points out that the principles of serendipity also seem to align- generally- with what we may otherwise attribute to ‘being lucky’ or having ‘lucky breaks.’

Applied Serendipity

Luckily, we- as a species- are naturally curious, and the vast majority of us have intellectual depth with some interest in many topics. The first trick then, is to give ourselves the mental-space to be observant to these, and allow them to develop.

I’ve met many entrepreneurs who feel it’s almost cheating themselves to have time-off, relax, or indulge things which are not directly profit-generating- but then the overwhelming majority of those I meet who have really made it are also the ones who do actively make time to feed their interests, have periods of mental space, and allow their brains to work creatively.   For those willing to dip their toe in the water, this can feel a little alien- but much like exercise- it’s about making time in your schedule to allow this to happen. This could be something as simple as blocking-in some regular time to yourself, or as deep as getting into practices such as mindfulness and meditation.

Some of this may sound a little new-age, but even in my own entrepreneurial journey- I can tell you it makes a difference. My best ideas, and most successful opportunities have come- usually- from the most unexpected areas.

So, what are my five top-tips for making your life a little more serendipitous!

  • Vary your routine:
    We are creatures of habit, and unfortunately, our habits lead to automation of our thinking. Varying our routines- whether it’s taking a different route to work, listening to different music at the gym, varying our time-table, whatever it is – can start to stimulate our mind in unusual [and often exciting] ways.
  • Make mental space:
    Perhaps the hardest-pill for any entrepreneur to swallow in this sense is making space. In the same way that you exercise your body, and give it time to recover, and gain strength, you need to give your mind space and peace away from the constant demands, connectivity and challenges of the contemporary business world.
  • Open your intellectual boundaries:
    Alongside spending time on those interests you enjoy; make sure you also broaden your horizons, read books about things you know nothing about, watch documentaries on things you didn’t think would interest you, go to exhibitions and performances which wouldn’t normally be ‘your thing.’
  • Seize Opportunities:
    This may sound like fairly obvious advice, but I’m often confronted with people who dismiss ideas far too quickly. Many of the world’s greatest success stories began with quite simple explorations of ideas. I’m not talking about throwing caution to the wind and executing every business idea you have, but rather allowing yourself the opportunity to at least research your ideas, let them form, test them, and see what happens!
  • Make Conversations:
    Again, this may sound like fairly obvious advice, but it’s so critical that we broaden our social and human environment as much as our intellectual one.   There’s only so much our world will become richer by surrounding ourselves with clones of ourselves! Take a snapshot of any successful people you know, and you’ll see their social circles are very eclectic! I try and meet people from different backgrounds, industries, professions and more- using things like meetup, and similar platforms.

This isn’t just individual-work. There are plenty of fantastic ways you can apply these principles to teams, and even whole companies!

The Elephant in the Room….

Interestingly, much of the advice that’s given on introducing serendipity into our lives is also spookily consistent with the advice given to- frankly- have a better life.

There’s no rocket-science here, the more you see, do, experience, hear, learn, create and understand, the more likely it is that you’ll benefit from the unexpected…

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.