“He's still alive!” Said the police officer when he found him inside the wrecked vehicle.
Although several years have passed, Christian Busch vividly remembers those words. And that accident would turn his existence around.
Dr Busch is a professor at New York University and the London School of Economics (LSE).
As a researcher he has focused on entrepreneurship and social impact leadership, business model innovation and emerging markets.
He has been included in “Top 99 Influencers” by Diplomatic Courier magazine, “Ideas People” by The Economist and in “Davos 50”.
He recently published the book: The Serendipity Mindset: The Art & Science of Creating Good Luck (“The mentality of serendipity: the art and science of creating good luck”), in which he delves into the importance of making sense of the unexpected to find opportunities, not only professionally but also personally.
“A lot of people are skeptical about their ability to take advantage of chance. But then they look at the data and it becomes as clear as daylight: the unexpected is always happening, so it makes sense to try and be ready for it. Today It is not uncommon for companies to create positions with titles such as serendipity spotter (discoverer of serendipity), “he tells BBC Mundo.
“A German with Mexican blood”
Busch grew up in Germany and has studied and worked in countries such as Russia, China, Kenya, and Mexico, where he lived for a period of time.
“My friends joked and told me that I was 'a German with Mexican blood' (…) It was one of the best experiences of my life”.
Busch was deputy director of the Center for Innovation at the London School of Economics and is a visiting professor at the Marshall Institute of that university.
“I use any excuse to return to Latin America, I miss the people, the quality of life and the language,” he tells of his recent activities in Chile.
According to Busch, many times the people we call “lucky” have gone through a very interesting process of creativity after facing a situation they did not expect.
Are there people who by nature are better than others to see more opportunities in unexpected situations? We asked.
“They do some things differently,” he replies from New York. “A challenging but important aspect of cultivating serendipity is accepting that we can't plan or know everything.”
“Accepting imperfection as part of life allows us to seize the moment if unexpected mistakes occur.”
Here are his answers to the BBC Mundo questions.
The interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.
In a talk he gave in February, he recalled the car accident he had. What was the impact of what happened in your life?
The accident shattered my sense of control. Before that near-death experience, I felt like I could control a lot of things and realized how quickly life can end and that the really important things can be out of my control.
Viktor Frankl was one of the great Viennese psychotherapists. He drew on his experience as a prisoner in the German concentration camps during World War II to write his work.
I remember wondering, “If I had died, was it worth it? Did I do something meaningful with my life?”
The accident put me on an intense search to give my life meaning. I started reading Viktor Frankl's wonderful book Man's Search for Meaning and it helped me understand the crisis and made me realize that what I enjoy the most, and what makes sense to me, is connecting inspiring people and ideas.
He points out that in a world that is filled with uncertainty and rapidly changing, a key skill is cultivating serendipity. How can it be developed?
Covid-19 has been a stark reminder that throughout history, progress has depended on the ability of humans to make the most of the unknown.
Despite the social distancing that the pandemic has imposed on us, we must find ways to continue stimulating interaction because opportunities and ideas can emerge from there.
In the context of a pandemic that has changed the course of daily life and exacerbated inequalities, we are witnessing how individuals and businesses creatively embrace the unexpected. For example, distilleries (in Germany) that instead of shutting down started producing alcohol-based hand sanitizers at an affordable price.
And individuals who have reinvented themselves and connected not only with what is really important to them but with the people who are truly valuable in their lives.
In times of crisis, these kinds of efforts tend to be driven by need. But research in the natural and social sciences also shows that breakthroughs and opportunities are often a matter of serendipity – the unexpected good luck that results from unplanned moments, in which proactive decisions lead to positive outcomes.
This “smart luck” is different from the “blind” luck that just happens to us (like being born into a loving family). It is a hidden force that surrounds us, from the smallest day-to-day events to the advancements that change life and sometimes the world.
More mundane encounters, like bumping into someone at the gym or on a multi-party Zoom call, can change your life forever. Most of us can mention at least one that has happened to us.
There are many examples in science and medicine of serendipity.
Look at the example of the drug sildenafil. When British scientists used it to research cures for heart problems like angina pectoris, they did not expect it to cause an erection in the penis in the patients participating in the study. They were surprised.
What would most of the people in that situation have done? Just accepting that it was an uncomfortable side effect of the treatment? Would they have ignored it? Or would they have developed another way to cure angina that did not have this side effect?
The three investigators did none of that. Instead, they saw an opportunity to develop a drug that could cure erectile dysfunction. Viagra, one of the most successful inventions of all time, was born.
What those cases have in common is that someone reacted to an unexpected serendipity trigger, connected the dots, and crucially moved on. When we realize that serendipity is not simply about a single event happening to us, but about the process of spotting and connecting dots, we begin to see bridges where others see abysses.
I have always been fascinated by the question of whether some people are able to create the conditions for positive coincidences to happen to them more frequently than others. Can you detect these moments and turn them into positive results? Can we learn to navigate the unexpected and create our own “smart luck”?
By definition, we cannot know or program fortuitous results, since they would cease to be so. What we can do is cause positive matches to come to us more often and with better results. A serendipitous mindset allows us to do that and it is a muscle we can build.
In our work we have found that many of the world's most inspiring people have developed, often subconsciously, a muscle for the unexpected that helps them unleash creativity and ingenuity, and drive success and impact in a rapidly changing world.
Cultivating serendipity becomes an active approach to dealing with uncertainty rather than a passive one.
How do you create “good luck”?
There are a number of immediate steps to building a serendipity muscle and creating “smart luck.” For example, the ones we can give in our daily interactions, like asking good questions and being open to unexpected answers.
Imagine that you are in a virtual conference and you meet someone for the first time. Many of us can put ourselves on automatic pilot and ask the dreaded question, “So what do you do?” This tends to put the other person in a box that is difficult to get out of.
Positioning ourselves for smart luck means asking more open questions like: “What was the most interesting thing about …?” or “how are you in the mood?”
Those questions open up conversations that can lead to intriguing and often haphazard results.
We can also set serendipity hooks, using memorable or engaging talking points, to open ourselves to serendipity. For example, when Oli Barrett, founder of several companies in London, meets new people, he throws several hooks that allow possible overlaps.
If you are asked, “What do you do?”, You will respond something like, “I love connecting people, I started a company in education, recently I started thinking about philosophy, but what I really enjoy is playing the piano.”
This answer includes at least four possible triggers for serendipity: a passion (connecting people), a job description (running an education company), an interest (philosophy), and a hobby (playing the piano).
If you simply answered, “I am an education,” the opportunity for others to connect the dots would be small.
With his response, Oli allows others to choose the hook that relates to his life and makes serendipity more likely to occur.
How can we transform unexpected situations, some of them bad, into something positive?
There are many things we can do, one important is to expect the unexpected. Being alert is essential to detect situations that we do not foresee and to turn them into positive results.
The unexpected cannot be underestimated. In fact, you have to be vigilant to take advantage of it, says Busch.
We tend to underestimate how likely the unexpected is, and we often treat life as linear and controllable, even though it is full of twists and turns.
Who has not presented their CV as if their life were a coherent and rationally organized plan or an idea as if it had been rigorously derived from facts rather than intuition?
Creating an artificial purpose for our actions obscures many unexpected encounters and the true learning process.
Our research shows that people often feel pressure to convey that they have everything under control, even though they know that this is not always the case.
Achieving success is often not about controlling what the exact outcome will be, but about balancing a sense of direction with an appreciation for the unknown.
That sense of direction, which is a broader ambition, curiosity, or interest that guides us consciously or subconsciously, helps us move on to locate and connect the dots.
This could mean putting aside a specific career and instead seizing unexpected situations as opportunities to explore new directions.
We can also create a serendipity journal, which can help us reflect on unexpected situations: how we react, what we would do differently next time. It allows us to reflect on how to explore each conversation or meeting, virtual or physical, as an opportunity for serendipity to occur.
Unexpected situations can create anxiety in some people because there is a feeling of losing control or that something bad will happen. How can you see the unexpected with another vision?
As someone who grew up in Germany with a planning mindset, the uncertainty and ambiguity have always made me a bit anxious.
“One of the reasons why I like serendipity is that (…) it questions the assumption that just because something didn't go according to plan, it must be an imperfection,” the professor reflects.
But one of the reasons I like serendipity is that it rethinks the unexpected: it takes you away from being a threat and places you in an infinite basket of potentiality.
It challenges the assumption that just because something didn't go according to plan, it must be an imperfection.
Something that has helped me a lot is saying in every ambiguous situation: What am I afraid of? Why am I worried? And I've come to realize that what I regret the most comes not from acting on the unexpected, but, in Mark Twain's words, from not acting on it.
There are many exercises, even for more introverted people, that can help us feel less anxious about the unexpected. For example: the journal of serendipity that I already mentioned.
In companies, practices like detecting serendipity can be effective. For example, in meetings we can ask: what surprised you last week?
We can learn from companies like Pixar to frame conversations around the notion that there is no “perfect idea.” With that, people are given the psychological confidence to come up with ideas that may seem too “crazy.”
This helps us see the unexpected less as a threat and more as an opportunity.
You talk about turning mistakes into opportunities. How can we see mistakes in a way that helps us grow? Why should we not be afraid of making mistakes and facing a crisis?
In a rapidly changing world, we often don't know what kind of solutions we will need tomorrow.
Busch argues that making sense of the unexpected can help us extract opportunities from mistakes.
Experimentation is often crucial, and we need to look at the world with different eyes, framing the inevitable mistakes or failures as experiments.
One method that has been useful to me is to rethink situations, as I mentioned earlier, and see that crises can be an opportunity and that resource constraints are a possibility to be creative.
Reframing is trying to look at situations differently. Many times it is about seeing an opportunity where others see a problem or a mistake.
When we stop, for example, considering budget constraints as a problem, but instead try to make the most of what we have on hand, the most creative and haphazard solutions will emerge.
That's when design companies begin to produce masks or when artists whose performances have been canceled begin to attract new audiences by teaching an instrument online.
One example is Reconstructed Living Labs, which created a low-income education methodology that enables them to develop their own skills, companies, and platforms.
The central question of the team when entering a new community where there is a shortage of resources is not “how can we help?” As this approach puts its members in a position of beneficiaries or even “victims”, and often leads to a passive attitude.
Instead, it seeks to mesh with and complement existing assets in that community, looking at them from a new perspective.
Errors, says the academic, can be seen as experiments.
People who were previously considered “unskilled” become valuable contributors. It is an approach that organizations and governments now use.
Often when we view the world not so much in terms of resource needs but rather in terms of creative solutions to problems, what we perceive as liabilities can become assets, and the situation changes from one of helplessness to one of opportunity. . Here's how serendipity can occur in resource-limited settings.
But of course, our starting positions when it comes to potential serendipity are very different, and working to address structural inequalities must go hand in hand with those kinds of approaches.
Rituals like “autopsies” also come into play – when people openly share ideas that didn't work and what they learned from them with people in other divisions.
It's not about celebrating failure, it's about celebrating learning something that didn't work. This can help legitimize the idea that sharing things that don't work is often the way we learn the most and the way many serendipities can happen, when people agree that an idea that didn't work in one context might work in other.
Sadly, the pandemic has claimed more than a million lives, millions of people have fallen ill, thousands of jobs have been lost. What tools do we need to navigate such tough times?
2020 has been a difficult year, a lot of “bad luck” that we really can't do anything about, but it can be effective to focus on building determination and resilience.
Crises can help us rethink how we structure our lives.
I've always been deeply inspired by Frankl and his approach to finding meaning in crises.
In fact, when I had a severe manifestation of covid-19 in March, your book, which I mentioned earlier, was one of the things that helped me get by.
The idea that we have to try to make sense of the most difficult situations, accepts, recognizes, that the current situation is terrible. He does not make her pink.
But it also says: let's see where we can find meaning and do something about the situation. Can you help us rethink how we structure our life, what is our work approach, how we view our friendships? Can you help us re-evaluate what is important to us? Look long term, take perspective and make the best of the crisis.
Crises bring out the best or worst in people and often separate true leaders from the rest. People will continue to wonder in the years to come how leaders acted during this period.
This can be a great opportunity to truly commit to your own values and hone a truly meaningful corporate culture.
In recent months, the way we interact has changed. Many people have seen personal and professional plans stagnate or have simply decided to forget about them. What kind of mindset do we need to find opportunities in this context?
Physical distancing has robbed us of many opportunities for serendipity that arise from in-person interactions.
Many of the traditional starting points of serendipity, like casually meeting someone, are happening less.
But there is still much we can do to provoke serendipity, which is crucial in times of uncertainty. After all, it is in times of uncertainty that many solutions, ideas, and opportunities tend to come from unexpected places.
So what can we do to unleash serendipity in these rare times?
If we focus on getting a specific job or doing something in particular, we narrow our scope of possible opportunities or solutions. If instead we look at all the opportunities that might be available to someone with our abilities and are open to the unexpected opportunities that someone may come to tell us about, that's where the magic happens.
A great way to start that process is to work alongside people (or organizations, for example: with an internship) that we admire. It's a fruitful way to put ourselves on their radar and be there once a position unexpectedly pops up.
And having a long-term vision is vital. Covid-19 and the economic turmoil it has unleashed has been a reminder that we cannot plan everything except our careers.
A key question is: what will be really important (in personal terms) 10 years from now?
The “bad luck” often depends on when we stop the story. For example, if a job fails, we must take a long-term view and try to rethink the situation as an opportunity for growth, reflection, change and the development of resilience.
In the space between stimulus and response is where, in the long run, our growth and serendipity reside.