The surprising benefit of feeling lucky

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 comes your way.

Lucky people count pictures much faster

In the 1990s, scientist Dr. Richard Wiseman performed 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 had to complete a short questionnaire. One of the questions was 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 demonstrated more anxiety, which detracted from their powers of observation. They totally overlooked the ad and continued flipping through the newspaper to count pictures.

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 them when they spot one. The unlucky, on the other hand, seem to move forward without paying as much attention, completely missing the positive effects of changes that happen right in front of them.

Dealing with the unexpected

Throughout the day things happen that we do not expect. The train is delayed, the road is blocked so that you have to take a different route, or an appointment is moved to a different time or 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? That person might just be the one who can help you with a problem you can’t solve by yourself or it could be the start of a nice collaboration.

9/11 brought two inventors together

Chris van der Ree, the technical mastermind behind BlueAlp, happened to be in New York when the 9/11 attacks took place. He was stuck for two weeks before being able to return to the Netherlands. He started talking to a German professor who was also stranded in the same hotel. The two clicked. When they both returned to their home country the contact remained, albeit sporadically.

Years later, the professor put Van der Ree in contact with a Swiss company that could bring unrecyclable plastic waste back to its origin: oil. A circular world first. They struggled to get the installations working properly. Eventually, Van der Ree and his team fixed the issues. 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 and started researching the topic. He wrote the book ‘The Serendipity Mindset’ and 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.

Haier's 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 some research, they found out that the farmers used these machines to wash potatoes. Instead of explaining to farmers that the machine was not made for that, they saw an opportunity and developed a machine that could also wash potatoes.

Cultivating serendipity can be trained

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

This article was originally published in Dutch on MT/Sprout, the most popular business and management platform in the Netherlands.

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