Any honest successful entrepreneur will tell you that luck and timing were critical to her success. Because luck and timing are not reproducible, we only have clarity in hindsight. Every event in the past has only happened once and will never repeat itself. And the very nature of luck, is that, well, it happens by chance. Timing you can anticipate; luck just happens without your control. However, what is within your control is the probability of chance favoring you, echoing the famous statement by Louis Pasteur that “chance favors the prepared mind.”
Chance, at first glance, may seem binary. You either get lucky or you don’t. The truth is chance varies depending on who the person is. The question I want to digest is “can one alter their behavior and mind to become luckier?” I normally prefer to go from practice to theory. To look at examples first before extrapolating common theories derived from the examples. The reason being is that in theory, theory and practice work the same; in practice, they often don’t. I want to take the theory approach first then dive into the examples. To explore how the X-ray was discovered and to see why Charles Darwin’s reading habits primed his mind so that when he read Malthus’ essay, the seeds of theory of evolution formed in his head.
Serendipity is often the term used to describe the moment when an unplanned collision occurs between two or more ideas. It is that euphoric moment when the eyes widen and the ideas seem to fit perfectly. I very much like the phrase by Matt Ridley who described it as “ideas having sex.” The word serendipity actually comes from a tail known as The three princes of Serendip. It describes three brothers who, along their journey, stumbled upon discovery after discovery. For a discovery to be serendipitous, it must not be something you are looking for nor planning encounter…it just happens by chance. Yet most people confuse this with randomness, thinking that one cannot create the environment that promotes serendipitous moments.
The three brothers of Serendip were not sitting on the couch hoping to reach a spark of brilliance. Rather they were out, exploring the world and engaging in new experiences. It is in this behavior that causes chance to favor some over others.
Chance has four modes of operating. Chance I is the type of luck that occurs completely accidental. You walk on the street and find a $100 bill on the ground. There was nothing you did to trigger this incident. It is often called “blind luck.”
Chance II occurs because you are in a state of motion. It is known as the Kettering Principle, named after Charles F. Kettering. Being in a state of motion results in a higher likelihood of collisions between people and ideas. The three brothers of Serendip epitomize this principle. They explored new territories, which meant that they had a higher probability of encountering unique experiences and ideas.
Chance III is known as the Pasteur Principle, named after Louis Pasteur who said that “chance favors the prepared mind.” This one is of particular interest because two people can be looking at the same thing, and one might make a significant discovery while the other simply looks and moves on.
The last chance, Chance IV, is a unique kind of chance because it is a result of a very peculiar behavioral trait. Idiosyncratic individuals fall in this camp. They are the weird ones, the ones who have an odd set of traits that allows them to view the world differently form everyone else.
James Austen, author of “Chase, Chance, and Creativity,” had this incredible chart depicting the four types of chances:
I am particularly curious about Chance III and Chance IV because those two are where the majority of great ideas and invention reside. James Austin writes about the discovery of the X-ray:
As one example of Chance III (the prepared mind), we can turn to Conrad Rontgen’s discovery of the X ray. One day in 1895, Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen was experimenting with cathode rays in a darkened room. Some barium platinocyanide happened to be nearby. Suddenly, he noticed that the barium salt seemed to emit its own light — to fluoresce. No ordinary light rays could have been generated by the cathode tube and then been transmitted across the room to light up the barium, because a solid piece of cardboard blocked the path of light between the tube and the barium. Rontgen concluded that he was in the presence of something — that powerful invisible rays generated by the cathode tube had gone through the cardboard.
Roentgen had the proper background and knowledge base to notice this peculiar behavior of light rays. We humans have an incredible ability to notice inconsistencies and when something doesn’t fit the patterns we’ve formed of the world. Rontgen was able to quickly understand that something new was happening because his deep knowledge allowed him to notice the odd behavior and formed a hunch that something unique was taking place. It so happened that the barium was nearby and the elements were in the right place — a chance occurrence. This might have happened to other people, but Rontgen was able to capitalize on this because he had a prepared mind.
Charles Darwin is another example of Chance III and IV at work. He is an example to many people in their twenties still trying to figure out what path in life they should take. When he was 28, his father had concluded that his son was not going to be good at anything because Darwin had failed at every field he tried to pursue. What made Darwin peculiar was what he did in his free time.
Darwin would wonder the beach observing creatures and sea animals. By the time he was 28, with no solid life prospects, he happened to hear about a ship that was going to travel the coasts of the African continent collecting data on species. After initially hesitating and being “realistic,” Darwin decided to go. He spent 8–12 years at sea, just collecting data and observing species. When he landed on the Galapagos islands, he noticed an odd similarity with the species there and other species far away. He didn’t have an epiphany, simply a hunch that something was off. It took another decade for the hunch to form into a theory.
When he returned to England, he began studying the data he collected. Darwin had a diverse reading habit, which caused him to stumble upon Thomas Malthus’s paper called “An Essay on the Principle of Population.” After he read it, he immediately found an explanation to the data he had was studying. He connected the dots between the essay, the data from the trip, and the lingering hunch he formed at the Galapagos islands. It was then that Darwin thought of the Theory of Evolution. Coincidentally, another man by the name of Alfred Russel Wallace also came up the same theory after reading the same essay by Malthus; Darwin and Wallace never, not once, met each other throughout their lifetime. This goes into another thought provoking question: are innovations inevitable?
Charles Darwin is an example of Chance II, III, and IV because of his explorations, deep knowledge base, and peculiar reading habit. One could make the claim that had Darwin not read Malthus’ essay, he would have lived with a hunch throughout the remainder of his life. But chance favors the prepared mind, and he probably would have stumbled upon another economist’s ideas years later that would have caused the disparate ideas in his mind to form together.
Chance IV is known as the Disraeli Principle. It builds on top of previous forms of chance and favors those who have a very peculiar set of behaviors and tendencies. Creatives often display an idiosyncratic set of contradictory traits. Here is a great chart that displays them:
The engineer, scientist, writer, and artist can be both a lone wolf and work very well at integrating her ideas. She can be playful in her experimentation and serious in her work. Creatives not only shift in the spectrum of their personality, but also in their mindsets. Einstein was known for playing the violin when he reached in impasse. He went from an analytical mindset to a musical mindset, and allowed himself to be consumed by the music. This gave him a refreshed perspective when he returned to his work.
It is often amusing how some software engineers figure out a solution to a problem. When I am stuck on a problem, I sometimes figure out the solution when I am brushing my teeth or when I am about to sleep, which can be frustrating at times because you must act before the solution is gone from your mind.
Idiosyncratic traits are not only weird ones, but they can also be normal ones, like reading, that are done with such intensity and oddness. Nathan Myhrvold, the former CTO of Microsoft who now runs Intellectual Ventures — a firm for creating new ideas — is a physicist who reads medical journals for fun. Orit Gadiesh (below right), the chairman of management consulting firm Bain, reads over 100 books a year:
“I bring into my work everything I do; all of my past consulting projects, all of my readings [100+ books a year]. I read novels. I read about physics, mathematics, history, biographies, art. One reason I work well in Germany is that I’ve read a lot of German literature, German philosophers, German history, etc., even though I’m Israeli. They’re great writers. Likewise, I can work in France because I’ve read their literature. I’ve read Japanese literature, Korean literature, English literature, American literature, Israeli literature, and on and on. I bring all of that somehow into my work. And I think that makes me better at what I do. It also makes life more interesting.”
Malcolm Gladwell wrote a piece in the New Yorker a few years ago on “Ideas are in the sky” discussing a theory among historians known as the Multiple Theory of Invention. It states that inventions occur not simply because a great mind is at work, but because ideas are in the sky — a term meaning that some ideas are circulating amongst the minds of the people at the time. “There were four independent discoveries of sunspots, all in 1611; namely, by Galileo in Italy, Scheiner in Germany, Fabricius in Holland and Harriott in England,” (see Historical Sunspot Record) wrote Ogburn and Thomas, the authors of the paper “Are Inventions Inevitable?”
The law of the conservation of energy, so significant in science and philosophy, was formulated four times independently in 1847, by Joule, Thomson, Colding and Helmholz. They had been anticipated by Julius Robert von Mayer in 1842. There seem to have been at least six different inventors of the thermometer and no less than nine claimants of the invention of the telescope. Typewriting machines were invented simultaneously in England and in America by several individuals in these countries. The steamboat is claimed as the “exclusive” discovery of Fulton, Jouffroy, Rumsey, Stevens and Symmington.
The ideas for the inventions were circulating amongst society — or in the sky — at the time the great minds went to work. This circulation of ideas is a result of information freely flowing between people. Today, we have an abundance of information that can sometimes be overbearing. I believe the most valuable use of this information is in the form of streams. Streams of information in the form of Twitter feeds (following great minds from disparate fields), newsletters on the state of the art in technology and science, magazine subscriptions such as The New Yorker.
The key is to carefully curate the streams of information so that there is a higher chance of ideas forming in your mind. This, combined with the deep domain knowledge if your field, makes it more likely that you might stumble upon an idea that is very valuable. It often occurs that this good idea only comes after many bad ones.
Chance favors those who have prepared their mind, continuously explore areas, read voraciously, and have a peculiar set of traits that allows new opportunities to form around them.