The science of (smart) luck

People find comfort in certainty. We form organisations; we structure our activities and strategies around the idea of certainty; we find satisfaction knowing that planning will bring fruition. But the unforeseen makes the greatest difference to our futures.

We look out for the unexpected every day - for example, when we use a pedestrian crossing, we still look out for the unexpected driver who might race through the red light. That awareness of the unexpected is at the core of understanding the science of smart luck that we can use to our benefit.

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  • Trigger - the moment when something unusual or unexpected happens.
  • Connect the dots - observe the trigger and link it to something seemingly unrelated, thus realising the potential valued within a unique event.
  • Sagacity and tenacity - the ability to follows through and create an unexpected positive outcome.

Many of the world's leading minds have developed a capacity to use the unexpected in a positive way.

You can develop a serendipity mindset in yourself. Serendipity is not a passive luck that just happens to you. It is an active process of seeing and connecting the dots. It is about seeing bridges where others see gaps, then taking the initiative to create smart luck.

It is vital to be open and alert to the unexpected.

In one experiment, two people were chosen. The one saw themselves as 'lucky,' the other as 'unlucky.' Both participants were taking separate trips to a coffee shop. On the pavement was a £5 note, and inside sat someone posing as a successful businessman.

  • The 'lucky' person picked up the £5 and struck up a conversation with the businessman.
  • The 'unlucky' person failed to notice the money or talk to the businessman.

This experiment shows that your mindset, and how you think about the possibility, can affect your ability to find opportunities in the moment.

Preparation is the main factor for creating smart luck. It is mostly about removing the mental and physical barriers to serendipity. These include overloaded schedules, pointless meetings, and inefficiencies throughout your day.

An unprepared mind often discards unusual encounters and misses the opportunities for smart luck. Preparation is about developing the ability to employ the positive coincidences that come up in life.

Our habits and preconceptions can prevent us from spotting serendipity. Three major biases stand in the way:

  • Underestimating the unexpected. Once we start to accept that the unexpected happens all the time (bad and good) can we begin to view it as a potential benefit or opportunity rather than a threat.
  • Hindsight bias. When we construct stories of past events, we often think there was a linear trajectory, but it was probably a squiggly path. If you habitually remake the many unexpected events, you'll miss the importance of the unpredictable parts.
  • Functional fixedness. When we use a tool, we're so accustomed to its usual specific function that we're often unable to see its usefulness in other contexts. Similarly, people familiar with specific problem-solving strategies are unlikely to devise simpler or better ones.

Beginners can set a timer for two minutes, then list in two columns the parts of your day that led to positive outcomes and parts that did not. Examine what parts worked really well, and what was inefficient, stressful or unfulfilling.

You might notice patterns that stand out for good or bad. Sometimes, it's the smaller things that deplete your energy and alertness.

  • You might discover patterns that stand out from your journaling that is cluttering your life. Consider why it doesn't work well. What was the underlying assumption that you based your decision on? What could you do instead?
  • Another part is to clean up the small things so that they no longer take up space in your life. Pay the bills where you can, go to the dentist, plan your meals so that it no longer take up headspace.

Serendipity often requires an incubation period. Some efforts result in an immediate spark, while others are like planting seeds that will produce fruit in the future.

Respect your time. Diarise this time like you would a business meeting. Give yourself space to manage your focus, interests and creative energies.

There are simple tools that can further help you exploit serendipity.

  • The serendipity hook strategy. Whenever you meet someone new, cast a few hooks: Find out about hobbies, vocation, current interests, creating space for common ground and shared passions.
  • Try reframing mistakes or challenges as opportunities.

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