Do you feel lucky? You'll be much better at cultivating serendipity

June, 2022

How you deal with unexpected events influences your success, writes innovation expert Simone van Neerven. Be open to the unexpected. And who knows, that revolutionary business idea will naturally comes on your path.

Counting pictures

In the 1990s, scientist Dr. Richard Wiseman performs a simple experiment. He asked a group of people to flip through a newspaper and count the number of pictures they saw. Before starting they first completed a short questionnaire, where they also had to indicate whether they felt lucky or not.

On average, it took the people who felt unlucky about two minutes to come up with the right answer, whereas the people who identified as lucky took just a couple of seconds.

How come?

On the second page there was a huge ad that said “Stop counting. There are 42 pictures in this paper.” The lucky ones saw this ad, but the people who considered themselves less fortunate seemed to demonstrate more anxiety, which detracted from their powers of observation. They totally overlooked the ad and continued counting each picture.

Attention spotlight

One of the most interesting differences between lucky and unlucky people is what we call the ‘attention spotlight’. Lucky people are always looking for an opportunity – big and small ones – and seize these much more. The unlucky, on the other hand, seem to move forward without paying as much attention and not seeing the positive side of changes.

Dealing with unexpected events

Throughout the day things happen that we did not expect. The train is delayed, the road has been broken up so that you have to take a different route, or an appointment is moved to a different location. The way you deal with these changes has a huge impact on your success.

Do you sulk on a bench to wait for the next train, or do you engage in a conversation with someone else on the platform? Because that might just be the one who can help you with a problem you can’t solve or the start of a nice collaboration.


Chris van der Ree, the technical mastermind behind BlueAlp, happened to be in New York when the 9/11 attacks took place. He got stuck there for two weeks before being able to return to the Netherlands. He started talking to a German professor who was also stuck and the two clicked. The contact remained, albeit sporadically.

Years later, he called Chris and put him in contact with a Swiss company that could bring unrecyclable plastic waste back to its origin: oil. A circular world first. Only, they had a lot of trouble getting the installations working, something Chris and his team eventually managed to do. After years of innovation, at the end of last year, BlueAlp’s first factory was put into operation, and a second one is now under construction.

We underestimate the unexpected

Christian Busch, a scientist at New York University, became fascinated by the subject of serendipity, started researching it, and wrote the book ‘The Serendipity Mindset’ about it. He discovered that the unexpected is often underestimated, leaving many opportunities untapped. His research shows that the most successful, inspiring, and joyful people are intuitively able to make the most out of unexpected situations and encounters. They flexibly deal with changes by seeing the possibilities, not the limitations.

Potato washing machine

One of Christian Busch’s childhood friends used to say, “It’s quite probable that the improbable will happen.” When Busch collaborated with Haier, the innovative Chinese white goods manufacturer, he encountered a great example of dealing with an unexpected situation. Chinese farmers complained to Haier that the washing machines broke down too quickly. After further questioning, it turned out that the farmers used the machines for washing potatoes. Instead of explaining to farmers that the machine was not made for that, they saw an opportunity and developed a device that could also wash potatoes.

Serendipity can be trained

Everyone can learn to get more out of luck, such as by simply asking the question “What surprised you this week?” in the weekly team meeting. You can also stimulate serendipity, for example by mentioning a few very different things when someone asks what kind of work you do. By leaving these different hooks, there is almost always one that resonates and leads to a follow up conversation. If you approach someone yourself, you may learn more by asking which book someone is currently reading and why. You will be surprised by the interesting things you hear. Then it is up to you to do something with it.

This article has been translated from its original version, which was originally published in Dutch on MT/SPROUT in June, 2022.

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