Serendipity is beautiful word. Its form and sound add something to our language. It would be a good word even if I did not know what it meant.
Its meaning is exciting too.
Serendipity – the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for. – Merriam Webster
A lucky discovery. A fortunate accident. Unexpected insight.
History provides many examples. From penicillin to vulcanized rubber to the soft glue on post-it notes to Archimedes principle to the molecular shape of boron.
Each of us has the opportunity for serendipitous events, but we miss many of them. We are caught up in the application and study of “reality.” Things that cannot be true must then be ignored. Things that do not fit our belief system must be wrong. Serendipitous events are never part of any previous “truth.” One must be open-minded and curious. Childlike even. We can open our mind a little if we understand how we work.
Years ago Edward DeBono proposed the idea there are three ages of reason.
- From birth to about age 4, The Age of Why. Why does that happen? Why does that work this way? Why endlessly. Children seek knowledge of the workings of reality.
- From age 5 to about age 10, The Age of Why Not. This is the creative age. The let’s try this and see what happens age. Exploring, sensing, learning from experience.
- After age 10, The Age of Because. This is the anti-creative age. “Because” is the limit of accepted wisdom. Of received wisdom. Of completeness.
To be creative DeBono recommends that people stay in the Age of Why Not.
Many of us lack the skill to be truly creative. Edison, Einstein and Shunpei Yamazaki built on skills and knowledge few of us possess. Even then, I suspect that they had some lucky events that lead to others that we now recognize. Truly creative people react to the unusual differently. They do not wait for the flash of creation, they start with an observation. Usually in the form, “Gee, that’s funny. ”
After much exploration, time and work, the serendipity of the first observation turns into something of value. Many of us only see the end result. Few know that it took a long time and quite a bit of money for 3M to turn their failed glue experiment into a useful product. Alexander Fleming grew a culture of penicillin in 1928, but it was not appear as a medicine for general use until 25 years later.
A complete, well-formed, and workable idea comes along nearly never. Learn to see the “Gee, that’s funny. ” and let it percolate. That is the work part of creative. Probably why so few are good at it. The Age of Why Not is challenging.
Eventually we learn that having ideas is relatively valueless. Implementing ideas into a commercial form is difficult and valuable. Never stop with the idea. Learn to stay in the Age of Why Not and work it until your product or process becomes someone else’s “Because.”
Don Shaughnessy arranges life insurance for people who understand the value of a life insured estate. He can be reached at The Protectors Group, a large insurance, employee benefits, and investment agency in Peterborough, Ontario. In previous careers, he has been a partner in a large international public accounting firm, CEO of a software start-up, a partner in an energy management system importer, and briefly in the restaurant business.
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