Exploring vs. Committing

(Note: This is a piece is part of a larger exploration I’m working on around serendipity. You can find all the articles here.)

Most of us are pretty familiar with the trade-off that exists between exploring new ideas and committing to a defined direction. We might feel anxiety when it’s time to stop entertaining new ideas and start deciding on a concept to build. There might be this nagging feeling that maybe we hadn’t gotten a great idea so we weren’t going to have a great concept.

The tension between exploring and committing is a big part of understanding serendipity. I had assumed that exploration would have been the favored state. You know, remain really flexible, digest tons of ideas, mixing and mashing them all together until you experience this glowing moment where the heavens open up wit this unbelievable idea. (Yah….ok.)

This whole explore forever mode actually turns out to be the worst path to serendipity, luck happens better through commitment. At the heart of serendipity is this act of recombination; you’re remixing ideas and experiences in your head and in your conversations with others. Through this process you’ll begin to see new patterns and insight. So, as it goes, if every idea you consider is flashy, new and unconnected, it will be hard to see something different in the whole. There is value to stewing in things a little bit. 

Commit and Create
Beyond recombining ideas, it turns out that committing to an idea has a powerful force on your environment. Instead of evaluating everyone else’s ideas, you become a beacon for your own. Lane Becker and Thor Muller lay it out perfectly in their book Get Lucky*:

Commitment, an essential skill of planned serendipity, involves organizing ourselves around an overriding purpose. Commitment means having a point of view that’s so strong and expressed so powerfully that it actually transforms the environment around us. In turn, our commitment stirs up latent desires and intentions in those who work with us, inspiring in them the conviction they need to act on those intentions in situations where they otherwise might not have. When we are fully committed we serendipitously run into things already on our path and recognize opportunities uniquely suited to us, even as others miss these opportunities completely.

This sort of blew my mind. It’s completely obvious, yet the nuance is important. In the past, I’ve written about the power of committing to an idea. But I had argued for commitment in order to psych yourself up for a gnarly challenge, or work through a problem by sketching your ideas. I hadn’t considered how much committing might help shape your environment, which is such a powerful idea. It’s human nature for people want to help others, and this type of commitment plays right into our best intentions. Herein lies the power of co-working spaces, meet-ups, communities of all sorts. Life has the chance to become a self-fulfilling prophecy of the best kind.

The Perils of the Pivot
So along with just understanding how serendipity might occur, I’m trying to think about how our rapidly changing environment might change the way we experience serendipity. You can probably see where this is going. If we can build and test ideas faster than ever could this rob us of the opportunity that a longer-term commitment affords us?

The tech start-up world is littered with these stories of companies who pivoted to brilliant ideas, and we don’t often here the stories of the unsuccessful pivot (mostly because the company didn’t live to tell the tale.) Choosing to explore an idea or commit to a direction is an important question to return to often. It’s also important to not overlook how much a bold commitment might create more opportunities than endless exploration.   

*Muller, Thor; Becker, Lane (2012-03-09). Get Lucky: How to Put Planned Serendipity to Work for You and Your Business 

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