Ian Leslie has penned a lovely piece for Intelligent Life about serendipity, and why it matters in the digital age. As a serendipity architect it’s tempting to repost the entire piece, but I’ve pulled the highlights out below:
Google can answer almost anything you ask it, but it can’t tell you what you ought to be asking. Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Centre for Civic Media at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a long-time evangelist for the internet, points out that it doesn’t match the ability of the printed media to bring you information you didn’t know you wanted to know. He calls the front page of a newspaper a “discovery engine”: the lead story tells you something you’re almost certain to be interested in—the imminent collapse of the global economy, or Lady Gaga’s latest choice of outfit—and elsewhere on the page you learn that revolution has broken out in a country of whose existence you were barely aware. Editors with an eye for such things, what Zuckerman calls “curators”, are being superseded by “friends”—people like you, who probably already share your interests and world view—delivered by Facebook. Twitter is better at leading us to the interests of people beyond our social circle, but our tendency to associate with others who think in similar ways—what sociologists call our “value homophily”—means most of us end up with a feed that feels like an extended dinner party.
…But when everyone can get the same information in more or less the same way, it becomes harder to be original; innovation thrives on the serendipitous collision of ideas. Zuckerman told me about a speech on serendipity he recently gave to an audience of investment managers. As he started on his theme he feared he might lose their attention, but he was pleasantly surprised to find that they hung on every word. It soon became clear why. “In finance, everyone reads Bloomberg, so everyone sees the same information.” Zuckerman said. “What they’re looking for are strategies for finding inspiration from outside the information orbit.”
So what should you learn from this? Here’s my top three ways to create serendipity:
- Browse the magazine rack at airports or train stations before you’re taking a journey. Pull out a couple of magazines that you’d never normally read and browse them cover to cover. Seek out articles/photos or advertisements that could have some relevance to your interests or work. You’d be surprised what can come out of this simple exercise.
- Change the route you take to work each day. Look for items of interest along the way – I find that seeking novelty often sparks new ways of thinking.
- Mingle at parties. Network at functions. Start conversations with anyone and everyone. My preferred technique for doing this starts with looking for the odd person out. If you’re at an unconference and everyone is wearing jeans and t-shirts, start talking to the guy who came dressed in a suit (this is based on an actual situation where I got totally drawn in to a conversation about religion 2.0). If everyone is dressed in a suit, talk to the guy in the jeans.
What’s your best tip for creating serendipity?