Serendipity can strike when you’re open to the unexpected

I met my husband standing in line for graduate school registration. Turned out we lived in the same apartment complex. I had a car; he had a bike. He could cook, and I was tired of eating fish sticks every night. A marriage made in heaven that started from an exchange of transportation, food and professional interests. What luck that I was standing in that line on that day in that place. Luck? Or maybe serendipity?

Years later, I got an email from a friend in Boise (Kevin Learned, who writes for Business Insider on angel investing) about a person he’d met in Ireland who led, eventually, to Boise State beginning a one-year project that developed into a nine-year, $8.5 million new venture startup in Hanoi, Vietnam. The project has benefited Boise State in many ways, including my research partnership with Vuong Quan Hoang.

The project has also led to many former students from 20 years ago deciding to send their own children to study in Boise. Was it luck that put that project at that time together with Boise State? Or was it serendipity?

Some people say serendipity is a “happy accident,” but Hoang and I think it’s more than that. We think it’s an ability to recognize and create value from unexpected information. A critical component is the ability to notice and then take advantage of something unexpected. In fact, serendipity has happened for years all over the world in all sorts of fields, from science and technology to career choice and development, to business and entrepreneurship. Just think of the classic examples that are now legends, such as Steve Jobs seeing an opportunity to leverage his calligraphy knowledge in building a computer interface. I suppose the most recent is Amazon’s purchase of a newspaper—some unexpected information that can be tapped and acted on.

As Hoang and I have talked about serendipity over the years, we see several stages that can be learned and used by business people. First, you need to put yourself into situations (for example, around new people or in new cultures) where you’ll be ready to notice information that is unexpected, such as a change in the marketplace, technology or knowledge. That means you have to be open to noticing, of course.

Next, you have to be able and willing to evaluate that information—both in what we call “flash evaluation” and often, in a more systematic evaluation, in terms of whether you can take advantage of it in ways that you didn’t expect or plan for. In business terms, we might say “evaluate whether you can create unintended or unexpected value.” Finally, you need to be able and willing to act on the information.

So try this and start small: Open up, look for unexpected information. When something arises, think about whether it could help you/your firm do something better than your competition. If so, and if you can take advantage of it, go for it.

That’s what happened for me those many years ago. Unexpected information: a great guy and good cook who needed a lift. All of the stars aligned and became a lesson in how serendipity can really pay off.

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