I'm always surprised when I see people who have been successful...and they're absolutely convinced that it's all because they were so smart. And I'm always saying, well, I worked hard, and I've got some talent, but there are a lot of hardworking, talented people out there... There was this element of chance to it...of serendipity...[and] you want to see if you can maybe figure out how to sprinkle that stardust on other people.
Barack Obama, 44Th President Of The United States of America
We all like to feel like we are masters of our own destiny—to feel in control of our future, to know how we will reach our goals and ambitions. In short, we all like to have a plan.
This seemingly innate human desire to map out our future is reflected in almost every aspect of modern life. Organizations, governments, and every one of us all structure our activities around plans, strategies, and targets that we make. We construct routines, rules, and processes—from setting the alarm clock to organizing national elections—to ensure that those plans come to fruition.
But are we really in control of our lives? Or is this just an illusion? Despite all of our planning, modeling, and strategizing, there appears to be another factor at work: the unexpected.
We all recognize that unforeseen events, chance meetings, or seeming coincidences are often not just minor distractions or specks of grit in the machines of our well-oiled lives. The unexpected is often the force that makes the greatest difference to our lives and our futures. It is the critical factor.
Perhaps you found your spouse "by coincidence"? Or came across your new job or apartment "by accident"? Did you meet your future cofounder or investor "by chance"? Or did you "randomly" pick up a magazine just to find exactly what you needed to know to solve a problem?
How did such moments, big or small, change your life? How could your life have played out had everything just gone according to plan?
Wars are won or lost, companies thrive or collapse, and love is found or lost all on the turn of the unexpected. Whatever our ambitions are in life—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.
Even in the rigorous world of scientific research, the power of the unexpected is (almost) always at play. Studies suggest that around 30 to 50 percent of major scientific breakthroughs emerge as the result of accidents or coincidences. One chemical spills into another, cells combine in dirty petri dishes, or there is a chance encounter between experts whose incidental conversation sparks new insights. The greatest opportunities, for individuals and organizations alike, are often a matter of serendipity.
So does most success boil down to blind luck, to success or failure brought simply by chance rather than through our own actions? No; intuitively we sense that this isn't true either. While we recognize that the greatest turning points and transformative opportunities in our lives often seem to occur by chance, some people just seem to have more luck, and subsequently more success and joy, than others.
This isn't just a modern phenomenon, either: The chemist and biologist Louis Pasteur thought that chance favors the prepared mind. The military leader and emperor Napoléon Bonaparte said he would rather have lucky generals than good ones. And the Roman writer and statesman Seneca argued that luck is a matter of preparation meeting opportunity.
Their beliefs all reflect the idea that while chance is a real force in our lives and in the world, there is more to life than blind luck. Indeed, the word "fortune" can refer to both success and luck. Even commonplace phrases such as "You make your own luck" or "He's a man with an eye for the main chance" all point to the idea that success in life depends on an interaction—a synthesis—between pure chance and human effort.
What is really going on here? Are some people able to create the conditions for positive coincidences to happen more often than others? Are they better able to spot and grasp these moments and turn them into positive outcomes? Can our education and approach to work and life equip us with the most important skill of all—the ability to navigate the unexpected and make our own "smart" luck?
This is a book about the interactions of coincidence, human ambition, and imagination. It is a book about serendipity—this unexpected good luck resulting from unplanned moments in which proactive decisions lead to positive outcomes. Serendipity is the hidden force in the world, and it is present all around us, from the smallest day-to-day events, to life-changing, and sometimes world- changing, breakthroughs.