SXSW, part II: Serendipity’s role in success and how to cultivate it

Earlier this week I blogged about one theme I heard in digital marketing conversations at South by Southwest Interactiveauthenticity — but the panel that really rocked me was about serendipity:

Serendipity is a fuzzy concept that has a powerful effect on our lives. More than blind luck, it’s the product of lots of passion, insight, or proximity. As we live lives that are more accelerated and connected, with access to tools that help us rapidly express and investigate our ideas are we creating greater conditions for serendipity?



Colin Raney is a Location Director and an Associate Partner at IDEO, where he leads the Boston studio.


John Perry Barlow Co-Founder Electronic Frontier Foundation


Joichi Ito is the Director of the MIT Media Lab.


Kevin Rose is a Venture Partner at Google Ventures, where he primarily focuses on early-stage and seed investments.

The panelists were smart, successful, articulate guys who didn’t come across as mystical hippies — but they openly acknowledged the role of serendipity, luck and magic in their success. They talked about the ways they actively cultivated serendipity in their lives. Some key points I noted:

  • Look for that one person who is the opposite of the people you know. Weak ties are hugely valuable. Diversify your network.
  • Ito has concentric circles of friends. If you show yourself to be selfish, you are out of inner circle, get different treatment.
  • We create luck through generosity.
  • Getting older gives you the opportunity to get access to interesting people. Reject mundane adulthood, take advantage of that.
  • Take away constraints to allow people to be magic. Expect them to deliver magic. But also reward failure.
  • Luck is all about being open to looking around. If you plan your life, you won’t give luck room.
  • Be willing to open yourself up to the unexpected.
  • Serendipity favors enthusiasm and zeal, but the more we learn, the more jaded we get. Need to retain beginner’s mind.

And it felt a little serendipitous when they cited a study mentioned in Psychology Today’s article on luck that I blogged about last fall:

3. Go Ahead, Slack Off

Conscientiousness is no friend to serendipity. A “big five” personality trait, it’s strongly associated with achievement. “Conscientiousness means you do what you’re supposed to do, and you stick with it,” explains Carol Sansone, professor of psychology at the University of Utah. Problem is, conscientious people will persist in a task even when there’s no good reason to do so. This may explain why it’s possible to “try too hard.” By rigidly pouring all of your effort into one approach, you miss out on unexpected—but more direct—paths to success.

Wiseman conducted an experiment in which he gave subjects a newspaper and asked them to count how many photographs were inside. There were 43, and most subjects found them within a few minutes. However, they could have completed the task within seconds had they read the large type on the second page of the paper. It said “stop counting—there are 43 photographs in this newspaper.” Or they could have instead earned $250 had they noticed the half-page message that said “Stop counting, tell the experimenter you have seen this and win $250.” The subjects didn’t notice either message. But when Wiseman asked them to look through the newspaper a second time for anything unusual, they saw them immediately.

The video of this panel isn’t online yet, but I’m hoping SXSW will post video soon. I feel like there was more to learn than I could absorb in just one pass.

Apparently I wasn’t the only one buzzing about serendipity in Austin. The Wall Street Journal had a headline: Office Trends from SXSW: Serendipity Is the New Synergy

And lots of people were tweeting from this panel, so here are insights some others took on serendipity, collected in three different Storify summaries by Tony Felice, Hugh Garry and Patricia Marinho:

[View the story “The New Serendipity” on Storify]

[View the story “The New Serendipity” on Storify]

[View the story “The New Serendipity” on Storify]

Related posts on saying yes, being open to possibility and being lucky:


Categories: career, creativity

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