Episode 301 – The serendipity mindset with Dr Christian Busch

Christian BuschThey told Christian Busch that it would be ‘academic suicide’ to do his PhD on the science of luck. But it turns out that luck isn’t a random force at all: the results may be unpredictable, but the process of becoming luckier is a simple matter of creating more connections and joining the dots more effectively.

In this conversation, he explains more about how to become luckier by adopting a ‘serendipity mindset’, and also how you can benefit from ‘peak-hour writing’ to get your own book written. 

This just might be your lucky day… 

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The Serendipity Mindset site: https://theserendipitymindset.com/

Christian on Twitter: https://twitter.com/ChrisSerendip

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Alison Jones: I’m here today with Dr. Christian Busch, who is an internationally known expert in the areas of innovation, purpose-driven leadership and serendipity. He teaches at New York University and the London School of Economics. And he’s the director of the CGA Global Economy Program. Previously, he co-directed the LSE’s Innovation Lab and co-founded the Sandbox Network, a global community of young innovators, as well as Leaders on Purpose, an organization convening purpose-driven CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.

He’s a member of the World Economic Forum’s Expert Forum, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, among Diplomatic Courier’s ‘Top 99 Influencers’ and on the Thinkers50 Radar list of the 30 thinkers ‘most likely to shape the future’, and his new book Connect the Dots: The art and science of creating good luck by Penguin has been described by Arianna Huffington, no less, as a wise, exciting and life-changing book.

So, I mean, what a bio. Welcome to the show, Christian.

Christian Busch: Thanks so much.

Alison Jones: It’s great to have you here. I want to talk about serendipity, what a great word that is by the way. And you talk about the serendipity mindset. In fact, I think that was the original title of the book, wasn’t it? And the international edition is Connect the Dots.

So what is a serendipity mindset and how do I get one?

Christian Busch: Yes, well, the core idea really is to say usually when we think about luck, we think about the kind of blind luck that just happens to us. You know, being born into a good family, all the kinds of things that we can’t really pick, that just happened to us. But serendipity and a serendipity mindset is about creating smart luck.

It’s about saying, how do I see a little bit more in unexpected moments and turn that into positive, unexpected outcomes. So take the quintessential example: if you have erratic hand movements like I do, you spill a lot of coffee, and so imagine you spill coffee over someone in a coffee shop, and that person looks at you slightly annoyed but you sense there might be something there. You don’t know what it is, you just sense there might be something there.

And now you have two options, right? Option one is you just say, I’m so sorry, here’s a napkin. You walk outside and you think, ah, what could have happened had I spoken with that person and option two is, you know, you start a conversation. That person turns out to become your co-founder, the love of your life, you name it.

And so it’s our reaction to that unexpected moment, it’s our making this accident meaningful, that in a way creates that serendipity.

Alison Jones: And there’s so much in there about optimism and a little bit of self-confidence and a little bit of not minding rejection and all of that can be quite hard for some people, can’t it? So serendipity, how do you advise somebody whose natural instinct is to run away, to embrace serendipity a bit more. I am British, keep this in mind.

Christian Busch: That’s a great question. I’m a closet introvert, you know, I’m the kind of person, no problem giving a speech in front of people and then hiding in the bathroom afterwards because I need to recharge and regain my energy.

And so it’s really, you know, for people like me, one thing is I think a lot of times certainly when it comes from calm and quiet sources, right? It comes from reading a book and thinking, oh my God, that should be a podcast. Like connecting the dots out of those unexpected things we read or we watch in a movie. Or taking another street to work in the morning and seeing something in a bookstore and coincidentally then coming up with something new. And so I think there’s that part.

And then on the other side, you know, I’m a big fan of two things. One is very pragmatic, you know exercises. I’m sure we’ll talk more about this, for example, you know, the hook strategy that is one of my favourites, but then also really diving deeper to your point into what is it that is really holding me back.

Is it fear of rejection? And if it is fear of rejection, one thing that really helped me, for example, is to say, okay, I always assumed the worst thing in this situation could be rejection, right? So that, that person says, I’m so sorry, I don’t have time for you at this point. It could be in that coffee shop, it could be walking up to a speaker at a conference, whatever it is, but it is that moment or speaking up in a meeting, right? Where you have that unexpected idea and you hold yourself back because you’re like, oh, I’m not ready or I’m not worthy or whatever it is.

And the thing I realized, the thing that I reframe for myself, is that the worst thing in that moment is not the rejection, right. That’s stings and that’s like, okay. But the worst thing is going outside and thinking: what could have happened? That nagging thought that comes back, what could have happened? What could have happened had I spoken with that person?

So I feel that reframing helped me a lot, to say, you know what, I’m ready to kind of take the punch in the short run if at least I feel I’ve done whatever I could do and then walk out there. And so I think it leads to a bigger question, right, to really work on these underlying, self-limiting beliefs also that hold us back a lot of times from having more serendipity.

Alison Jones: It’s so interesting, isn’t it? It’s that kind of ‘you miss a hundred percent of the shots you don’t take’, and our cognitive bias towards being fearful of what we do rather than recognizing the risk in what we don’t do, because nothing is risk-free. Yes, so interesting.

And you talked there about joining the dots and connecting the dots. Talk me through, well, because I’ve read the book I know this, but if you can just show us how the serendipity mindset just is about connecting dots and seeing connections and opportunities and also, I’d love to know a bit more about the history of the title. Why was it changed?

Christian Busch: Yes, well, it’s really, you know, at the end of the day, when you think about what is underlying, when you think about up to 50% of innovations and inventions, when you think about how maybe we met the love of life, and so on: it’s never just the moment, the encounter of seeing something. It’s not just bumping into someone in a coffee shop, or it’s not just seeing some unexpected information somewhere or so. It’s about doing something with them.

It’s about connecting that to something relevant, to something meaningful. So to give an example, one of the companies that I’ve been working with in China, they produce washing machines and they received calls from farmers and the farmers told them your crappy washing machines are always breaking down.

And so they asked, well, why is the washing machine breaking down? Well, we’re trying to wash our potatoes in it and it doesn’t seem to work. So that is unexpected. That’s an unexpected trigger that’s happening there. What we would usually do is probably say let’s educate the customer. Let’s tell them to not wash their potatoes there, that kind of thing, right?

But connecting the dots here means, is there something in here that could be meaningful and that could relate to a bigger challenge, for example, there may be a lot of farmers in China that might need to wash the potatoes and they don’t have a good device for doing that. And so what this company did was to say, Hey, that’s unexpected, but why don’t we build in a dirt filter and make it a potato washing machine?

And that’s how unexpectedly so, the potato washing machine emerged. That’s how things like Viagra, Penicillin, Post It notes emerged because people see something in the moment. But not just see it, they do something with it. They connect the dots to something meaningful. And that’s also the reason why for the international paperback you mentioned, we kind of adjusted the title from Serendipity Mindset, which was the hardcover title, to Connect the Dots, which is kind of in a way, the broader theme of saying at the end of the day that’s what it’s all about.

It’s kind of connecting the dots is kind of the approach that helps us to create that kind of smart luck.

Alison Jones: And it is really, I mean the statistics are astonishing. I think I’m going to mis-remember now, was it 40%, you said, of significant inventions have been basically mistakes.

Christian Busch: Absolutely, up to 50%. I mean, when you think about it, take the example of Viagra, right? Where in a way, people were giving people medication against angina and they realized, oh my God, you know, there was some kind of movement.

Alison Jones: Side effect.

Christian Busch: Right, some kind of movement happening in that participant’s trousers, that’s embarrassing.

That’s a mistake, right? That shouldn’t happen. Oh my God. Let’s look away. Like we shouldn’t. And so-and-so. That would be our usual reaction, right. To either ignore it or to say let’s, quote unquote, get rid of the side effect. They did the opposite. They said, you know what, it’s unexpected, but probably there are a lot of men in the world who might have a problem in that department. So why don’t we make that a medication?

That’s how unexpectedly so Viagra but also so many other inventions come about out of these accidents. I think Alison, especially at the moment, where you see breweries turned into hand sanitizer companies because they realize they can’t sell the alcohol to restaurants anymore.

Things like that, where it’s about saying, is there something in that moment that could still be meaningful and where I can connect the dots to something that actually helps me meaningfully in our lives, but also more broadly a company or an organization.

Alison Jones: And I love that phrase, that’s unexpected. You can almost kind of start here and click, click, click, can’t you? That when something happens your instinct is to say, you know, oh no, that’s a problem. That’s unexpected is a much better way of framing it. I love that.

And you talk as well about a serendipity journal. I was really interested in that. Tell me about what that means.

Christian Busch: Absolutely. And also just to your point, right? I feel like that rephrasing towards, oh, that’s unexpected. We can embed that into our groups. We can embed that into families, into companies, into our own life, where literally we just reframe it as what surprised me. Oh, it surprised me last week that farmers were washing their potatoes. Maybe there’s an opportunity here.

And I think what it does then, it reframes the unexpected from just being a threat towards potentially becoming an ally and something that actually can help us to live even more meaningful and successful life. But, you know, I’m a big fan of serendipity journaling, because it’s really about saying how do we step back and reflect a little bit on what is it in my life that led me to serendipity. So what are the occasions in my life where I’m saying serendipity happened? Usually when I’m an X, Y, Z mood or X, Y, Z situation or whatever it is. And then trying to understand what is the pattern behind this? Is there something that I do? And can I do more of this, can I reflect on this.

 But also really saying when I reflect on the instances where I didn’t have serendipity happen, but it could have happened, what was it about that? Was there something particular that held me back? Is it the imposter syndrome that always comes back and says, Hey, you know, you’re not ready for this. Then can I work on this?

And so the journal is really about stepping back and saying, what is it about me that I can learn and that I can reflect on, but also more broadly, you know, technically speaking, thinking about what are the areas in my life that I’m interested in at the moment, what is kind of my North Star or areas of interest that I want to develop and then taking that and for example, using particular exercises that help us to have more serendipity. So for example, the hook strategy, which is one of my absolute favourites, because…

Alison Jones: Yes, go on.

Christian Busch: It’s so easy to use and it’s so easy to use in day-to-day conversations, right? Where it’s really to say, if you use your serendipity journal and you really reflected on the key three themes in my life at the moment are, I want to learn about the philosophy of science, I want to bring the serendipity mindset into curriculum around the world and to companies around the world, and I want to host piano matinees, these are the kind of three themes in my life, hypothetically speaking, the second one actually practically speaking,

Alison Jones: I was going to say the second one sounds very to point, yes.

Christian Busch: And then really kind of saying how can I now in every interaction, every conversation, seed a little bit of this, so that, when I come too late to a meeting, I would be like, oh my God, I’m so sorry I’m late. I was just thinking about how we can bring experts into the education system, but now I’m here.

And the amount of times people would say, oh my God, such coincidence. My aunt is running a school in X, Y, Z. You should connect. It’s incredible. And I learned that from Oli Barrett, the wonderful entrepreneur in London, if you would ask him the dreaded, what do you do question, that we all get asked at every conference, wherever we go, he wouldn’t just say I’m a technology entrepreneur. He would say I’m a technology entrepreneur recently read into the philosophy of science. But what I’m really excited about is playing the piano and then you might be like, oh my God, such a coincidence. We’re hosting piano matinees such a coincidence. My sister’s teaching on the philosophy of science, you name it.

So the point is that we can then, based on this journal, really cast these hooks that make it more likely that other people connect the dots for us.

Alison Jones: And I love the way you connected the dots there with the piano, beautiful. And what really strikes me about that as well, is that sense of, well, one thing that really strikes me is that this is something I talked to people who are writing a book about a lot. So please do not shut yourself in a room and write your book and then launch it on an unsuspecting world. Talk about it at every opportunity you get, because the number of people who will say, oh, that’s fascinating, you should talk to X or, oh, perhaps you could come and talk to us, the opportunities that come up while you write the book, are absolutely phenomenal.

So I think there is a real instinct for many people, if they’re working on something that matters to them, to kind of tamp it down and keep it in because it’s so precious and they’re scared of people finding out about it and stealing their idea and so on. But actually the benefits to you of putting the things out there, making the connections and getting the opportunities, far outweigh that risk.

Christian Busch: Absolutely. And I think, to me, always the fascinating point and I see that a lot, for example, my students, right? When they come up with a new business idea, so their first instinct is to say, oh, I don’t want to share it with anyone because they might steal my idea. And the point was similar to when you write a book, the idea is 1% of the thing, it’s the execution, right.

It’s really kind of…

Alison Jones: …it’s all in the execution.

Christian Busch: Beautiful stories, having beautiful practices, you name it, and that to your point comes from interactions. It comes from a learning curve. It comes from consistently iterating around it. And so I’m a big fan actually of thinking about where am I in the cycle of writing, for example, or in the cycle of my life.

And then, am I very open at the moment, in this case to serendipity? So for example, when I started writing the book, I was extremely open to serendipity because I was like, look, I want more stories, I want more insights. And I was literally a sponge. And then once I was relatively sure about what I wanted to write, once I built the networks that could help a little bit also with dissemination and so on, I would say, okay, let me go, not necessarily to the basement, but like to a coffee shop, or kind of like, you know, headphones in and no interaction for a while, just to also be able to focus and execute. Because I think a lot of times we might even get distracted by it if we have too much input. And so I think it’s this beautiful kind of understanding oneself in that kind of lifecycle of writing or lifecycle of energy.

And then when am I supposed to write, when am I supposed to have this? And funnily enough, a lot of times then the serendipity happens, right? And even in those focus periods so that’s absolutely the case I feel to, you know, do the opposite of shutting down.

Alison Jones: And of course the wonderful thing is when you do, having absorbed all those inputs, you take yourself away and do the writing, that process in itself helps you connect dots, see new patterns, new opportunities, but yes, you’re right, there’s a sort of ebb and flow of external and internal processes that go on there.

And it isn’t a sequence as it’s iterative. You get that clear and then you move on to the next thing and, and it keeps shaping it. That’s a lovely way of looking at it.

I’m interested in this as a science as well. So I know luck has been historically pored over, hasn’t it, by generals, by politicians, you know, what is luck and how can you be prepared for it? What turns into an academic discipline?

Christian Busch: Yes, well, I mean, it’s a very embryonic academic discipline, it’s emerging and that’s fascinating, right? I initially wanted to do part of my PhD on it. And people would say, oh my God, Christian, you can’t do this. Like, this would be academic suicide to work on these topics, because to your point that they, for a long time have been seen as esoteric and slightly kind of out of space, because I think there were all these different books especially that were more about energy and things that are a bit tougher maybe to capture versus I think the beauty.

What’s happening at the moment is that we’re saying, hey there are some things that we can learn from different sciences, the natural sciences and the social sciences, about how for example, in molecular chemistry, when you accelerate the amount of molecules where you don’t know the reaction, but you accelerate how often they meet. You don’t know exactly what the unexpected positive outcome would be, but you know, that it will be more likely that there will be one, right?

And the same in social interactions. If you bring people together that have similar values, but different ideas, you don’t know what the exact outcome will be, but you know, that it would be far more likely that some unexpected positive outcome happens. And that’s actually where part of this book idea emerged because you know, back in the days when Sandbox Network and community and part of setting up, you would go to dinner and people consistently would be like, oh my God, such coincidence, such coincidence, such coincidence, such coincidence, and the amount of people having coincidences all the time is just fascinating. But again, there’s some kind of recipe to it in the sense that you, by definition, can’t know what the outcome is, but you can develop intervention points for the process and you can create more potential serendipity triggers and you can learn how to connect the dots better and I think that’s the science behind it to say, how do we, once we turn serendipity just from a kind of more spiritual or something that just happens to me to a process that I can influence that is managerially influenceable.

Then I can actually look at, okay, how do I increase the trigger points? How do I do all these different things? And that’s where we can learn a lot from the social sciences, right? How space design and things like that, where it’s really about saying, how do we have people interact in ways that create more serendipity?

So the science really coming in and saying at the end of the day, no one field has really figured it all out, but by bringing those different fields together, we can literally connect the dots also towards the science of serendipity.

Alison Jones: Yes, and you’re right it’s that agency piece as well, isn’t it? Traditionally we thought of luck as something external. You’re either lucky or you’re not, or that was lucky, and it’s actually so much more to do with the way that you prepare the ground for it.

I mean, I normally, and will in a minute ask you about your best tip for a first-time business book writer, but actually I’m going to ask you for your best tip first about being more lucky.

How can we, what’s the one thing that people can do today to cultivate serendipity in their lives?

Christian Busch: Well, I’m a big fan of asking in every situation one is in, especially in crisis moments, what could still be meaningful in this situation? Is there still something in here that could present an opportunity? To give you an extremely radical example, like this is the most radical example one could ever think of, but Viktor Frankl, who I’m a big fan of, he survived the Holocaust.

He was in the toughest situation you can think of, which is he was in a concentration camp where you most likely will die. There’s no objective meaning in this situation, there’s nothing meaningful in being in a camp like this. So he said, let me create some meaning in a situation where there objectively is no meaning.

So what he would say is tomorrow I will talk with a fellow prisoner and will make them feel better. And by doing that, I now have a reason to wake up tomorrow and then I will do the same again and again and again with other prisoners. And so I am creating myself meaning here, and I think that’s the fascinating thing that a lot of times in situations where inherently there might not be a meaning, we can still find or create socially constructed meaning.

So to give an example, I had COVID last year, a severe form of it and almost died of it, 911 on speed dial. It was that time in New York where the hospitals were overflowing, you would call the hospital and they would say if you’re not a hundred percent sure it’s COVID, don’t come in because then COVID will kill you if it’s anything else.

We had hospital tents in Central Park, whatever, it was a very depressing period and objectively, it felt this is completely meaningless and emotionally, it felt completely meaningless. And what I found fascinating when looking back is the one thing it did is, and I’m post rationalizing now that I look back on it.

But the one thing it did though, is I asked myself a lot of questions around, Hey, I’m here now, I’ve done a lot around purpose and passion and impact but I’m here alone. And I haven’t really focused on developing, you know, a kind of love relationship that actually I would be here with someone and create a family and you name it.

And so it opened my mind to the potentiality of saying, Hey, I want to be more conscious and look out more for what could it be in my personal life again, don’t block it out and be so passion focused. During the same time, Lexi who now is my wife, went through a very tough divorce and serendipitously we met after a lot of years and one thing led to another.

We have now a two-month-old, beautiful baby, that’s crying in the room next door and things came together. And again, the reason I’m saying this is that inherently back in that day with COVID almost killing me, there was no meaning whatsoever. But when I think back now, it was an inflection point saying I opened my mind to that person and there’s much more to the story, that that person actually could not only be a good friend, as she was before, but I opened my mind that could actually be someone I could be in a relationship with.

And I think because I looked at people differently, I literally looked at people and could I picture that person.

Alison Jones: ‘Could it be you?’

Christian Busch: And so I feel like that reframing of really thinking about, okay, I want to prioritize this, made it then more likely that that would happen, likely on her side as well. She made most of that happen on her side, but a long story.

Alison Jones: You’ve had quite the 18 months. What an amazing story and really powerful. Thank you for sharing that. But again, that takes me back to what you said before about that’s unexpected. Because in the moment it’s hard to do that mental gymnastics, isn’t it? To find the opportunity, to think about it differently, but if you have a go-to phrase like, what can I see in here that’s an opportunity, that’s unexpected? If that becomes a kind of little program that you play in your mind, it becomes much easier to notice what’s happening and default to that, it’s sort of training your brain, isn’t it?

Christian Busch: Exactly and I think then, if you really think about: what could I connect this to? Is there something in my life that I can connect this to? Then we become better at connecting dots. And then every interaction becomes more likely to, oh my God, hey, such a coincidence and can introduce you to this person.

And then we start connecting the dots and see opportunity everywhere.

Alison Jones: And do you know what I’m going to steal that shamelessly as a prompt, I think, because I do a weekly sort of facilitated writing sprint, six-minute sprint, and I’m always on the lookout for good prompts for that. But I think that, something that’s happening that’s annoying or irritating or negative: what can I connect this to? Or in fact anything really, it’s a great prompt to yourself, isn’t it, to really kind of think on paper and work out what you can take away from it. Love it.

And now I’m going to do the thing that I said I was going to do and ask you for your best tip for a first-time business book writer, and obviously you’ve come sort of from academia. So you’ve got a good pedigree in writing, and that has its own problems when you come to write a business book, but for somebody who’s doing this for the first time, what would you say to them?

Christian Busch: Yes, it’s interesting because a lot of people around me are embarking on books. And I feel when I try to understand what differentiates those that go through with a book versus those that don’t, I feel a lot of times it’s really the writing routine and really the idea someone is able to say, let me understand when I have peak energy for writing, because I can spend five hours on a word document and get nothing done when I’m kind of low energy or I can spend half an hour peak energy and get five pages done.

And so it’s really, the one is kind of the reflective piece around saying, how do I manage my energy and when do I know that I have peak energy and can I protect that one or two hours per day, being in the morning for some and in the evening for others, and make that a routine every day over and over and over again. And that literally fills the page, right? Like being peak hour writing, even short periods, even if we don’t have a lot of control over our time. So I think that kind of piece around managing energy, but then also relating that to developing some kind of routine around writing.

Alison Jones: Yes, and protecting that time, I like that phrase you used, because it’s so easy isn’t it, to just let that time be taken up by other people’s agendas. Yes, it’s super practical. And also, I think it’s a reminder because quite often we listen to the advice of people who write and we say, oh, this is what they did so I’m going to copy that.

And actually, if they’re a morning person and you’re not, it isn’t going to work. You really have got to be aware of and play with what works, notice and reflect on and yes, build your own routine. Brilliant.

And I’m going to ask you too, as I always do for all my guests, to recommend, I say a business book, frankly Christian it could be any book you like that you think would be of interest and value to the people listening to the podcast. What would you recommend?

Christian Busch: It’s probably Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning because you know what is business, at the end of the day, it’s all about people, it’s all about understanding oneself and others. Viktor Frankl, you know, he wrote that book, Man’s Search for Meaning, really trying to understand how do you find meaning and how do you identify meaning and how do you make every situation meaningful?

I think, especially for leaders, that’s a key leadership skill, right? To figure out how do I create meaning in any kind of situation for people around myself and for me. So highly recommend Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning, it’s decades old, but you know, still delivers.

Alison Jones: Well, it’s decades old. And it’s, you’re right, it’s an absolutely brilliant book, but I was thinking about this the other day. And that point that you have, even when there seems to be absolutely no freedom for you and no options, you have a choice in how you respond and that is your freedom. And I think, with COVID and with all the uncertainty and all the external stuff that’s happening to us at the moment that is such a great reminder. It feels very timely. Great recommendation. Thank you.

And Christian, if people want to find out more about you, more about Connect the Dots, where should they go?

Christian Busch: Yes, well, the homepage is serendipitymindset.com. Or I’m on Twitter @ChrisSerendip and then on the Penguin page the Connect the Dots book can be found.

Alison Jones: Fantastic, and I will put all those links up on the show notes at extraordinarybusinessbooks.com. And thank you for your time today. You know, I really enjoyed reading the book and it made me much more, I don’t know, cheerful about possibilities.

And I think that’s a real gift that you can give people as a writer is to make them see possibilities, to make them feel more agency in their lives. So thank you for that.

Christian Busch: Thank you so much. Appreciate it.

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