Mindful Mind Tricks

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

So far in for this series, I’ve tried to write a bit about how to foster serendipity through personal interactions. Then we looked at how networks can effect how we connect to new information and ideas. For this post I’m going to explore how our own mindset can encourage or eliminate the possibility of serendipity.

The Approach Pattern
Serendipity is an exercise in perception. From the thoughts in your mind, to the stimulation of your environment, you are digesting vast amount of data and your mind is constantly sorting things out. To paraphrase Glauco Ortolano, ‘Serendipity is about finding something you didn’t know you were looking for.’ In that spirit, *how* you solve your problem is as important as *which* problem that your solve.

As a designer, when we’re tackling a problem in the studio, it’s quite common for us to distinguish between design and analysis. A design mindset is generative; when you’re in that frame of mind you arrive at an answer by creating more and more options until you see a pattern that moves you forward. An analytic (or reductive) mindset assumes that you have all the options in front of you and you need to choose the best option to proceed. The former will leave you with tons of new ideas (some good, some not), the latter will deliver a thoughtful recommendation selecting the best option available. It’s a simplified scenario, but even thinking about this comparison illustrates that a significant difference in problem solving.

Taking this exercise and applying it to serendipity, we can see that we’re going to fare far better when we’re creating and recombining new ideas. To get to something new, we need to remain curious and explore what could be. (In some sense, our actual moment of serendipity is a little bit like that  pattern recognition moment from the previous paragraph…only we can’t plan when we’ll spot the pattern.) So, err’ing towards generative exercises and playing with ideas encourages your mind to be in the remix mode you need to stumble into that new juxtaposition. This is probably not surprising, but when you consider most businesses become successful by hiring really smart, really analytical problem solvers, you’ll see that adopting this frame of thought is easier said than done. 

Distracting Rewards
Beyond how we entertain ideas, our motivation to solve the problem really frames how we approach the challenge. I won’t spend much time here because the bookshelves and business rags have beat this topic to death and Dan Pink’s book Drive (here’s a great summation) probably make the quickest work of lots of research with similar findings. The bottom line is that when people think they are solving a problem for money or other extrinsic motivators, they have a tougher time coming up with creative answers. Challenges that offer rewards literally change the way people think about solving a problem. (yet we all work for some sort of money, so this is a hairy problem.)

Blind Faith
Since serendipity is act of faith, we’ll probably be best primed to experience it by starting with little leaps of faith in our own lives. This could be a small exercise, letting a stranger choose your restaurant and your dish for dinner, or boarding a city bus without knowing the destination. It could be a larger act, like moving to a city without knowing anyone and having no job. The point is, when you place yourself in these moments something will happen (you just have no idea what). And in this moment, it will be up to you to make the best of things. It’s an exercise in optimism and in finding value in the unexpected. In these cases, there is no better or worse choice; it’s all unexpected.

Through these exercises, we learn the value of being uncomfortable and the act of letting go. We’re forced to embrace moments when we just don’t have an answer, a right answer doesn’t exist. This is when we the spiritual side of serendipity starts to show up. There’s a confidence that things will work out, we’re just not sure how. You’ve created a small, safe space. Now move this same idea to a small exercise at work…rinse, repeat, scale.

The Dangers of Satisfaction
To hold a modern technology lens against this point of serendipity, you can probably guess what I’m wondering about. We live in a world where answers are always at our fingertips and we’re primed for immediate resolution. Our dopamine receptors are raging from all this immediate satisfaction, but our creative mind struggles because while we’re absorbing tons of knowledge, we’re tackling less and less really large problems, (that my perception anyway).

There’s that old chestnut about the mind being a wonderful servant and a terrible master, (it’s also my favorite DFW piece). To set yourself up for serendipity, you’re going to have to think about how you’re thinking. And my guess is that it’s going to be a little difficult at first, but you’ll get the hang of it. BTW, if you’re in the market for creativity exercises, Dan Pink’s A Whole new Mind is absolutely excellent. (And with that, I reach my limit of Dan Pink references in a single post.) 

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