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Strengthen your smart luck: Build a serendipity mindset

Claire Coakley

Photography courtesy of Christian Busch , Penguin , Shutterstock

Want to make luck work smarter for you? Dr Christian Busch, author of The Serendipity Mindset, reveals how to take the reins when life turns random and access opportunity in the unexpected…


Some of the world's best moments have been discovered by happy accident. From discovering the birth of supernovas to the invention of Velcro, Post-It notes and Viagra, serendipity has played a part. Many of the world's leading CEOs and superstars also credit it as a large part of their success.

A serendipity mindset, explains Christian, is “seeing something in the unexpected, connecting the dots and then doing something with it. That's different from blind luck.” It's taking action that is key. That's how we can turn serendipity into “smart luck”.

In a decade of research Christian, who's currently a professor at New York University, sourced science and real-life anecdotes to show this is not just an academic theory; it works in both business and pleasure, from securing an investor or a job to meeting your life partner. He details how, if we meet coincidence with ambition and imagination, we can convert it to practical success. This is not about playing spot the coincidence, this new book even includes serendipity workouts to sharpen our skills.

The most mundane moment, like running into someone in the gym, can change your life

Six ways to make smart luck work for you:

1Lookout for the happy accident

“All sorts of studies show that the more we open yourself up to the unexpected, the more we see it,” says Christian. “Whatever our ambitions in life, whether finding business success, love, joy or spiritual meaning, we are prone to coincidental encounters. The most mundane moment, like running into someone in the gym, can change your life.”

Build a muscle for the unexpected

You can be 'smarter lucky' by letting go of auto-anxiety about random encounters. Based on some estimates, we have between 12,000 and 60,000 thoughts per day, most of them repetitive. And 80 per cent of them negative.

Anxiety can blur our vision to see smart luck.“Practices such as yoga, meditation and visualisation can open our awareness and help us learn to let go,” says Christian. “Once you've built up a muscle for the unexpected, find practical ways to use it.”

2Re-frame your view of failure

Around 30 to 50 per cent of major scientific breakthroughs emerge as the results of coincidences or happy accidents, including Viagra. But scientists who fail to connect the dots miss the serendipity, so their colleagues laid claim to the life-changing discovery.

Re-frame your view of failure. Are all restrictions necessarily a dead-end? Look at the Cambodian brewery where sales ended in the pandemic, but it saw the opportunity to make hand sanitiser, using the alcohol, instead of rum – and business boomed. 

“By keeping an open mind and paying attention to the signals around us, we build a muscle for the unexpected, which becomes key to survival and resilience in times of great uncertainty,” says Christian.

3Play the long-view game

Christian, himself, knows about looking on the bright side. At 18 he had a near-fatal car crash and in March 2020 was sick with coronavirus (it was “intense”). “In the moment it feels really bad, that life may be over, but life has taught me to look for the meaning in this and take the long view. For me, every bad thing somehow led to something which I wouldn't want to miss.”

He points out that crisis is the point when we discover who we are and taking a long-term view can strengthen your serendipity mindset. After his downturns Christian's motivation to make the most of life increased. From a wider perspective, he says: “Look at how quickly Covid-19 has made us question how we work, how we've lived and why we have to be open to the unexpected.”

4Question everything

To improve your smart luck, up your conversation game. Christian refers to these questions as 'serendipity hooks', which help us connect with people. So when asked what you do, don't just say, for example: “I'm in fitness.” This only gives one point of connection.

Tell them instead: “I'm in fitness as I help people improve their lives but I'm fascinated by nutrition and want to look into that, job-wise.” This reply contains three hooks: an aim (improving people) and a passion (nutrition) as well as your vocation. So people can “connect the dots” – another key term for more smart luck – and that's three more chances to make a connection.

Question-wise, the founder of Toyota likes to ask 'why' five times to find solutions to any given problem or issue. Remember, though, that the key is clever questions to reveal intentions, not quick-fire interrogation that's just irritating!

5Keep a smart luck journal

Track the unexpected in a notebook and try it weekly. This helps us to look back at meaningful opportunities to practise serendipity. Examples include: What happened last week which was unexpected? How did I react and how could I react differently so opportunities aren't missed?

The classic example is seeing that stranger in the coffee shop and feeling connected, but not acting on it. Then they leave, leaving you wishing you had started chatting. Who knows, if you spoke, what dots you may have connected – business, pleasure, even soulmate? Inspiration: Barack Obama was appointed Michelle's mentee at their law firm. And, yes, professor Busch has met a few of his own romantic partners via encounters in airports and coffee shops.

This notebook helps to connect the dots. Can you follow up with that contact you met and email them about a business opportunity? Check in with it to see if your gut is still telling you to go for it. From week one to week ten, Christian believes you'll see a shift in smart luck.

6Add positive energy

Remember when you've had a situation where everything seemed to go your way? It’s often self-reinforcing energy as people respond to positive energy. Like activation energy in physics that is needed to get a reaction started, we sometimes need igniting energy to help us spark something. So identify two or three people who put you into a good mood and set up meets to spend more time with them. Also, try switching up your routine to give serendipity more wiggle room in what or whom you encounter.

We can all benefit from more smart luck. “Imagine a world driven by curiosity, opportunity, and a sense of connection, rather than by fear, scarcity, and jealousy,” says Christian. He aims to see his book on the curriculum of high schools, universities and on the agenda of company directors. “The more this mindset can be part of everyday practice, the more I'd feel excited.”

The Serendipity Mindset: The Art and Science of Good Luck (£14.99, Penguin Life).

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