I have long challenged our conventional view of serendipity. I believe that those who master the art of serendipity will ultimately achieve much more of their potential and create value that is meaningful to them and others. But it won’t be easy. It will require us to move beyond our comfort zone and embrace new approaches.
Most of us believe that serendipity is something that just happens and that all we can do is be prepared for it when it does happen. I devoted an entire chapter in my book on The Power of Pull to the opportunity that we have to shape serendipity – we can, through our actions, significantly increase the probability of it happening.
What are some examples? If you live in a small village, the likelihood of serendipity is much lower than if you move to a large city. If you’re booked from early morning to late in the evening with meetings with people that you already know, you’re much less likely to run into someone that you didn’t know and who could provide real insight into an issue you are addressing. The choices we make on a daily basis can significantly alter the probability of those unexpected encounters.
I can’t resist tying this to my new book – The Journey Beyond Fear. In that book, I discuss how fear is becoming the dominant emotion among people around the world. If we’re driven by fear, we tend to isolate or hang out with people we already know – we’re very reluctant to meet people we don’t know.
So why does this matter? Well, it turns out that serendipity is becoming more and more essential for success. As I’ve discussed in my research on the Big Shift, we live in a world of accelerating change and intensifying competition.
In this Big Shift world, we need to accelerate our learning, especially learning in the form of creating new knowledge, as we confront situations that have never been encountered before. One of the best ways to pursue this form of learning is to seek serendipity – encountering people who can provide unexpected insight into some of the challenges we are confronting.
Narratives as a catalyst for serendipity
So, how do we do that? There are many ways, as I discussed in my book on The Power of Pull. In this post, I’m going to focus on an approach that I have come to believe is particularly powerful and yet rarely used. It involves the use of narratives which I discuss in more detail in my new book, The Journey Beyond Fear.
Most people view stories and narratives as meaning the same thing. I make an important distinction. For me, stories are self-contained. They have a beginning, a middle and an end – the end, the story is over. And stories are about the story-teller or some people, real or imagined. They’re not about you.
In contrast, for me, narratives are open-ended – there is no resolution yet. There is some kind of big threat or opportunity out in the future. It’s not clear whether it will materialize or not. And the resolution of the narrative hinges on you – it’s a call to action to those who are hearing the narrative. Their choice and actions will help to determine how the narrative plays out.
Opportunity-based narratives can be powerful catalysts for serendipity on two levels. First, they focus on a really, big inspiring opportunity that can help people more beyond fear and cultivate the passion that will take them beyond their comfort zone as they seek to address the opportunity. Second, these narratives have a call to action that motivates people to take action, including seeking out and connecting with others who share their excitement about the opportunity to be addressed. These are often people they have never met before.
In The Journey Beyond Fear, I explore how narratives can be crafted at multiple levels – personal, institutional, geographical and movements. Let’s start with personal narratives. We all have a personal narrative that is shaping our choices and actions. Unfortunately, more and more of us are consumed by threat-based narratives, viewing the future as very threatening and feeding the emotion of fear. As a result, we often do not have a call to action to others – with fear, we tend to lose trust in others and isolate ourselves.
Imagine what we could accomplish if we found a way to craft an opportunity-based personal narrative – a narrative is shaped by some really big and inspiring opportunity in the future that could help us to achieve much greater impact that is meaningful to us. That opportunity could help us overcome our fear and realize that the opportunity is not just for us – it’s an opportunity that many could share. It would motivate us to spread the word about the opportunity and seek help from others in addressing the opportunity. As word spreads, the likelihood of serendipity increases. People we never knew will seek us out, excited about the ability to come together and pursue a shared opportunity.
(I’ll leave institutional narratives and movement narratives for another time.) I believe that geographies – cities, regions and countries – can craft inspiring opportunity-based narratives that will increase serendipity. What’s the evidence for that? Well, cities like Athens, Florence and Vienna have harnessed that potential (see more in The Journey Beyond Fear). For now, let me focus on where I live.
I’ve been in Silicon Valley for many decades and people often ask me how to explain the continued success of Silicon Valley. Others would focus on things like the universities and venture capital firms. I believe the success of Silicon Valley has ultimately been driven by a powerful opportunity-based narrative. At a high level, it focuses on the opportunity to change the world by harnessing the exponential potential of digital technology, but the call to action is that you need to come to Silicon Valley to help address this opportunity. It’s the reason why the majority of successful entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley were not even born in the US, much less Silicon Valley. They were drawn from all over the world by the inspiring opportunity-based narrative.
Once they came here, serendipity was unleashed. These people were continually running into other people at gatherings and on the street that they never knew before. And because they were so passionate about the opportunity that drew them here, they would quickly begin discussing a challenge that they did not yet know how to address and asking for help and advice. Serendipity sizzles in Silicon Valley. And it can sizzle in any geography that inspires people to come together to address a really big opportunity.
Unleashing the power of narratives
Narratives have enormous potential but we only unleash that potential if we craft our narratives in certain ways. As I’ve already indicated, we need to shift from threat-based to opportunity-based narratives that can help all of us to overcome our fears and our tendency to isolate as we lose trust in others. The opportunities need to be really big opportunities that will take some time to achieve and that will require the effort of many people who can share in the opportunity (ideally, the opportunity will become even bigger as more people come together).
We also need to make an effort to spread the word about the opportunity and encourage people to come together to address the opportunity. We need to find ways to reach people that we don’t know. Word of mouth can help, but writing and speaking about the opportunity to large groups of people can be even more helpful in attracting people we don’t know (dare I mention social media as one important avenue?).
In a rapidly changing world, serendipity becomes more and more central to success, given its power to generate new insight that we would have never had on our own. We have the ability to significantly improve the likelihood of serendipity. One powerful (and largely untapped) approach that can help in this quest for serendipity is the crafting of inspiring opportunity-based narratives with a call to action to a broad audience.
If we get this right, we can turn the mounting performance pressure of the Big Shift into exponentially expanding opportunity. We are now able to create far more value with far less resources and far more quickly than ever before. Let’s get started!