Stumbling on insight isn't a stumble—it's an art.

Serendipity may not be 'dumb luck'

Where do good ideas come from? Serendipity, or finding what we are not seeking, is at the root of many discoveries and needs to be more fully understood, Pagan Kennedy writes in an op-ed for the New York Times.

Kennedy, author of the soon-to-be-released book "Inventology: How We Dream Up Things That Change The World," says the first thing to know about serendipity is that it is something people can do intentionally—not just "dumb luck."

People have different approaches to solving problems and generating insights. "As people dredge the unknown, they are engaging in a highly creative act," she explains. For instance, according to Martin Chalfie, who won a Nobel Prize in Chemistry, some scientists engage in a "free jazz" method of discovery that embraces spontaneity, flexibility, and chance.

The link between madness and creativity

Indeed, Kennedy notes that history is filled with examples of significant achievements that resulted from serendipitous discovery. "In the late 1980s, Dr. John Eng, an endocrinologist, became curious about certain animal poisons that damaged the pancreas," she writes, "so he ordered lizard venom through the mail and began to play around with it." Later, he discovered the venom included a unique compound that could be synthesized as a treatment for diabetes.

A survey of patent holders published in 2005 found that about half of patents stemmed from what "could be described as a serendipitous process," according to Kennedy. But serendipity doesn't mean chance—and some people seem better at cultivating it than others.

‘Super-encounters’ and serendipity

In the 1990s, a University of Missouri information scientist named Sanda Erdelez studied about 100 people to see how they engaged with serendipity. According to research, people seemed to fall into three groups:

  • "Non-encounterers" kept a tight focus and searched systematically for new information;
  • "Occasional encounterers," experienced serendipity irregularly; and
  • "Super-encounterers," who seemed to find insights everywhere.

Super-encounters "loved to spend an afternoon hunting through, say, a Victorian journal on cattle breeding," Kennedy writes, because of a belief that they would find "treasures in the oddest places."

That, Erdelez argues, is a key part of what makes a super-encounterer—they have a faith in their ability to find inspiration and, as a result, seek it out.

Why creativity is worth the wait

But for such an important concept serendipity is little-understood, Kennedy says, and requires development of "a new, interdisciplinary field—call it serendipity studies—that can help us create a taxonomy of discoveries" and help society understand how it generates useful ideas.

"The journey will be maddening, but the potential insights could be profound: One day we might be able to stumble upon new and better ways of getting lost," she concludes (Kennedy, New York Times, 1/2).

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