Can you cultivate serendipity?

The Serendipity Mindset: The art and science of creating good luck, by Christian Busch and published by Penguin; reviewed by Wendy Ross.

The word serendipity was coined by Horace Walpole and famously refers to a combination of accident and sagacity. It describes more than good fortune, rather it is the process of using and exploiting the luck that is ever present in our environment. It is this ‘sagacity’ that makes serendipity interesting to psychologists investigating how people interact with uncertainty. As a cognitive psychologist investigating serendipity in problem solving and creativity, I was particularly looking forward to the much-trailed publication of The Serendipity Mindset by Dr Christian Busch, which focuses on developing serendipity as a skill.

The book shows how we can shape our encounters with the world using ‘smart luck’. Smart luck involves widening your circle of experience, actively embracing chance and setting out to connect dots which may not initially seem related. The emphasis of this skill is to act and be ready for failure but, also, by being engaged in action, be able to restructure that failure. At first, this might appear common sense, but it is skilfully argued with in-depth scientific research. The ultimate message is that we have two choices in dealing with inevitable uncertainty: follow well-trodden pathways or embrace that uncertainty is both exciting and inspirational. Via stories from entrepreneurs and social enterprises through successful marriages and collaborations, Busch helps us to treasure the ability to profit from the unexpected.

There is much debate in the field about the nature of serendipity – whether it is a skill or a disposition, and to what extent it is possible to cultivate it. Certainly, my own lab-based research has demonstrated that moments of serendipity may be particularly hard to predict or cultivate which at times casts doubt on serendipity narratives which are told retrospectively. In other words, the narrative may reflect more the person’s understanding of serendipity than the moment of serendipity itself. However, the stories that Busch draws on and the research evidence certainly shows the value of looking at serendipity from a broader perspective. Perhaps because of my initially sceptical view, I was drawn to the last two chapters, which discuss the narrative framing of serendipity which can sometimes lead to survivorship bias, and the uncontrollable nature of lucky events in our lives. The power of this book is in guiding us to make the most of these lucky events.

Rather than being another feel-good book, The Serendipity Mindset is firmly based in the science of how people behave and interact with uncertainty and what changes can facilitate that. I would particularly recommend it to anyone who has been wondering how to open up their life chances. The exercises at the end of each chapter and the overall ‘serendipity score’ (providing a personal gage of your own skill) are useful heuristics to facilitate life changes. I may not always agree with the conclusions, but I cannot fault the science and the research. A must-read introduction to the science of this fascinating concept.

- Reviewed by Wendy Ross, PhD student at Kingston University

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