How to Be Serendipitous & Make Your Own Luck
Blog: The Process Street Blog
Once upon a time, the island nation of Sri Lanka was called “Serendip,” a word derived from Sanskrit which means Dwelling-Place-of-Lions. (Lovely, right?).
Serendip provides the setting for the Persian fairy tale “The Three Princes of Serendip”, who throughout their travels, stumbled upon an uncanny amount of luck.
The story of the princes and their relationship with luck is where the wonderful word Serendipity comes from. Serendipity, meaning accidental, unexpected, random, wonderful, happy, luck.
It is luck, or rather, how to make your own luck, that is the focus of this Process Street blog.
This post embraces and explains tech entrepreneur Jason Robert’s concept of “Luck Surface Area”, in the hope of helping you, the reader, increase your luck both in life and in business.
To jump to a specific section of the post click the appropriate link below. Alternatively, just keep scrolling to learn about the three lucky princes, Luck Surface Area, and how you can make your own luck.
- Serendipity and making your own luck
- How to make your own luck
- Make your own luck: The Luck Surface Area equation
- 5 actionable ways you can increase your luck surface area and make your own luck
Let’s get started.
Serendipity and making your own luck
Before I dive into the Luck Surface Area model, what it means, and how you can put it into practice, let me first clarify exactly what I mean by serendipity.
You many be wondering why there is so much focus on serendipity.
Well, it’s because the ultimate goal of the Luck Surface Area approach (which we will cover later on in this post) is to:
“Increase the amount of serendipity that will occur in your life” Jason Roberts, How to Increase Your Luck Surface Area
And also because it’s a beautifully magical word.
I’ll dive into the scholarly definitions and examples of “serendipity” pronto, but for now allow me to leave you with my understanding of the term: Serendipity is when you make happy and unexpected discoveries by accident.
… and tell you a story.
The Three Princes of Serendip: A summary
As I previously mentioned, the word serendipity was inspired by a fairy tale concerning three Persian princes.
Roughly 720 years ago a Persian storyteller first told the tale “The Three Princes of Serendip“.
In the story, the three princes were the sons of King Jafer, the philosopher-king of Serendip and ruler of the Sassanid Empire from 420 – 440AD. King Jafer had seen to it that his three sons received the best education possible from the wisest men in the entire kingdom. Upon completing their schooling, the king wanted his sons to gain real-life experiences to complement their existing education.
So, King Jafer sent the three princes off to travel and learn the ways of the world and the customs of their people.
Be it by accident or sagacity, as their Highnesses traveled they forever stumbled upon things that they were not in search of. An example of this is the tale of the blind mule or camel as it is sometimes interpreted: The princes discovered that a camel, which had a blind right eye, had traveled the same road recently because the grass was only eaten on the left side.
This is just one instance within the fairy tale whereby the princes discovered something that they had not been in quest of. It is the nature of these discoveries that sparked the writer Horace Walpole’s intrigue in the story in the year 1754.
It is also what later led him to first coin and use the word serendipity when describing the tale “The Three Princes of Serendip” in a letter to his friend and cousin.
Though it is true that Walpole originally proposed the word serendipity, the magic, and mystery the term holds today came later. And the modern, almost romantic understanding of serendipity differs substantially from Walpole’s original – rather mundane – depiction of the term.
Defining serendipity and luck
Now for the scholarly definitions.
The modern day interpretation of serendipity defines it as:
“The art of discovering new things by observing, and learning from encountering unexpected information.” Urbano Reviglio, The Origins of Serendipity
The term (or phenomenon) has received attention in a number of academic fields, from psychology and innovation studies, to the sociology of science and epistemology.
According to the article, Serendipity as an Emerging Design Principle of the Infosphere published in 2019, the principle of serendipity is a recognized design principle of the infosphere.
And, for those who don’t what the infosphere is (I certainly didn’t), it is: a neologism composed of information and sphere.
The principle of serendipity is also recognized in the information technology arena, where it is researched in digital environments in order to counteract algorithmically personalized settings. Within the environments, it is difficult to come across the unexpected, or in technical terms: what the algorithms are not able to deduce from the setting.
This is where the principle of serendipity comes in: As serendipity does exactly that … uncover the unexpected.
Academics and research aside, for me the best example I’ve found of the phenomenon that is serendipity is a statement by physician Julius Comroe:
“Serendipity is jumping into a haystack to search for a needle, and coming up with the farmer’s daughter.” Julius Comroe, Serendipity
How to make your own luck
Sometimes, great discoveries are made because of a serendipitous observation or situation…
A well-known example of this is the process by which Alexander Fleming discovered the antibiotic penicillin. Suffering from a gross bout of flu, Fleming happened to sneeze into a petri dish full of bacteria.
Some days later he was surprised to notice that the bacteria in the dish had been destroyed. He then worked to isolate the “active principle” lysozyme – the antibacterial protein found in tears and mucus.
That bout of flu and subsequent sneeze into the petri dish caused Fleming to continue searching for other environmental antibacterials. This research eventually led him to come up with the antibiotic penicillin in 1928, for which he won the Nobel Prize in 1945 (how lucky).
Fleming himself sums up the serendipity of this event in his statement made at the awards ceremony for the Noble Peace Prize:
“Nature makes penicillin, I just found it; one sometimes finds what one is not looking for.” Alexander Fleming, Princes, Penicillin & Providence
Make your own luck: the Luck Surface Area equation
Hopefully, by now, we should all be on the same page when it comes to understanding serendipity and – (ideally) – the fact that serendipity and luck are intrinsically linked should also have been made clear.
The extent to which they are linked is demonstrated in Jason Robert’s concept of Luck Surface Area.
Allow me to elaborate.
According to Roberts (who runs the popular podcast TechZing) your Luck Surface Area is equal to the amount of serendipity that will occur in your life. The amount of luck you receive is directly proportional to the degree to which you do something you’re passionate about; combined with the total number of people to whom this passion is effectively communicated.
Essentially, what Robert’s is saying is that by putting yourself (and your passion) out there be it through conversation, blogging, commenting on online forums, or tweeting (although be careful here, tweeting in the wrong way can be detrimental) you increase the likelihood of having a serendipitous moment.
The concept is simple but powerful.
It implies that you can control the amount of luck you receive or increase the amount of serendipity you encounter. In other words, you can make your own luck.
Luck Surface Area model
The diagram above illustrates the Luck Surface Area equation which demonstrates that: Luck = Telling x Doing (L = D * T)
- Doing = The more you pour your energy into your or passion, the more you become an expert in that particular thing.
- Telling = The more people you tell about your passion, the more you can increase the odds that luck will find you because more people will know what it is you are doing. For instance, consider how many big businesses experience rapid exponential growth. By being bigger the businesses’ ability to do and tell is greater, meaning they have a bigger Luck Surface Area.
By doing you are working your way to where you want to be. And, by telling you are bringing others into your orbit of passion and therefore increasing your Luck Surface Area.
An example: How Joanna helped Lance make his own luck
While researching I found a heartwarming example of someone’s Luck Surface Area increasing as an outcome of telling and bringing others into their orbit.
In a blog post written as though it were a letter-from Lance, an entrepreneur (who was in the process of launching his website at the time) to his partner Joanna.
In the post, Lance explains to the reader how an interesting thing happened on the day of the launch of his website, Page99Test.com. Before the launch, the website had been in beta test mode and Lance had tried (unsuccessfully) to get some initial traction for the site on Hacker News, a social news website focusing on computer science and entrepreneurship.
He had mentioned his goal (or obsession according to Lance) of writing something of value for the Hacker News community and landing on the front-page to his partner – in business, life, and love – Joanna.
Fortunately for Lance, Joanna is a talented Web copywriter and an agented fiction writer. When she learned of his obsession, she decided to spend some time on Hacker News to see what all the fuss was about. In the time that she spent reading a few posts, she responded to a simple request for help by a Hacker News member named Shereef, who was looking for some copywriting tips.
Out of pure generosity and with no expectations Joanna offered to help put together a brief list of recommendations for Shereef. She proceeded to compile a thoughtful and detailed list of best practices and recommendations on writing more effective copy for Shereef.
Fast forward a week or so to the official launch day for Page99Test.com (which also happened to be Joanna’s birthday).
They sent out their launch email to the 2,100 people who had left them their email addresses, posted to Twitter, and then got ready to head out for a romantic birthday dinner. After an evening of birthday celebrations, they came home and couldn’t resist but to take a quick look at their traffic using Google Analytics.
To their astonishment, traffic had soared. The site was receiving over 2,000 visits in the time it takes to finish a 5-course birthday dinner.
Thanks to Shereef’s gracious acknowledgment of Joanna’s work, the Hacker News post received 423 points and 120 comments in 24 hours, landing easily on the front page and staying there for a good stint… and Joanna’s PPT deck (that Shereef posted to SlideShare) saw more than 7,500 views in that period.
As a result of the post, Lance and Joanna have connected with some amazing people thanks to that one singular post to Shereef.
Lance then signs off the letter with this final point:
“Good things come from doing good deeds. It pays to be generous and help others out because you never know who you’re helping, and it may come back to you many times over – in ways that you can’t even imagine.
Thanks, Joanna. I love you.” Lance Jones, Co-Founder at Page99Test.com
I know … it’s heartwarming right?
Now, let’s refer back to the Luck Surface Area equation: Luck = Telling x Doing . And, apply it to Lance’s experience with Hacker News.
Lance was fulfilling the doing part of the equation by working towards his goal. However, it was the telling and sharing of his passion that brought about his eventual serendipity.
By bringing Joanna into his orbit and telling her about his passion Lance increased his Luck Surface Area. Joanna’s intrigue in Hacker News as a result of this led her to help Lance in achieving his goal … albeit in a completely unexpected way. How serendipitous.
5 actionable ways to increase your Luck Surface Area and make your own luck
The Luck Surface Area equation is simple, powerful, and as proven by the case of Lance and Joanna, can be backed up by real-life evidence and examples.
It does however miss out on one vital thing … time.
Well, in actual fact Robert’s equation is all about time yet it still doesn’t account for the fact that time is not limitless. To re-cap on the equation:
D = Time spent doing and developing expertise
T = Time spent communicating with others
Robert’s equation of Luck Surface Area assumes that entrepreneurs have an unlimited amount of time to be telling and doing. Or rather, this is what his diagram suggests.
The diagram below is a revised take on the Luck Surface Area equation as developed by Sean Murphy, a tech start-up expert. The revised diagram accounts for the issue of time and assumes total time is limited and that doing and telling should compete for that time.
Useful tips and tools for following the Luck Surface Area model:
1. Know your skillset
If you enjoy the doing part of the equation but are less comfortable with the telling, you may need to spend more time communicating in ways that suit you. Listening and engaging is also a form of communicating and telling. If this is the case you could check out relevant Youtube channels or Webinars.
The reverse is also true.
Process Street is a workflow management tool fueled by superpowered checklists. It allows you to plan, structure, and organize your recurring tasks. Thus, optimizing your businesses processes and giving you more time for telling and communicating your passion.
2. Prioritize your time
What is the minimum amount of time needed in one setting or period to be minimally effective at telling or doing? Consider the times of day and days of the week when you are most productive at doing. Setting time aside to complete tasks free of interruptions is vital.
Calendly is a great tool for organizing your calendar to ensure that you have time set out for doing: It is also great for scheduling meetings and communicating with others and helping with the telling part of the Luck Surface Area equation.
3. Be agile
Most projects look more like marathons than sprints: avoid the temptation to work at an unsustainable pace unless it’s to sprint against a short deadline or to respond to a real emergency.
An actionable way to mitigate burnout is by implementing an agile approach and sprint planning process. By taking an agile approach to your business processes you can plan your workflow marathon and determine exactly when you are going to sprint.
At Process Street we rely on an agile system that keeps our workflow cogs running smoothly. I’ve embedded our sprint planning template below so you can get a feel for what I mean by sprint planning.
Or, if you’d like to learn more about agile approaches in general, check out this post: Kanban vs Scrum: Understanding the Tools for Agile Success.
4. Keep track of your progress and results
Schedule time to look at your results and identify where your efforts are paying off. By scheduling your doing and your telling tasks you can keep track of both time spent and results achieved.
There are two tools that can help with this:
The first is Airtable, which is an easy-to-use online platform for creating and sharing databases. The user interface is simple and user-friendly and you can use the databases you create to store, organize, and collaborate. Airtable will help you keep track of where your time is going and if you are equally distributing it between the equation of doing and telling.
The second tool for keeping for track of your progress is Google Analytics, which is Google’s very own digital analytics software. The tool allows you to analyze in-depth detail about your online performance. It provides valuable insights that can help you shape the future strategy of your business.
5. Get feedback
Getting early feedback on whatever it is you are developing can really help you to ensure you produce the best possible product or service.
Usertesting is a service that allows you to get real-time feedback, from real-time customers, wherever you work.
Peek also offers a way to get feedback. It can be used for feedback on a website, a product, or an idea from a targeted audience.
Increasing your Luck Surface Area is making your own luck
So there we have it.
By now you should *hopefully* feel well versed in Jason Robert’s concept of Luck Surface Area and the doing and telling equation (L = D * T). When putting the equation into practice don’t forget the importance of time management as seen in the revised model of the equation (thanks to Sean Murphy).
Ultimately, the secret to making your own luck is to keep doing what you’re doing and keep telling people about it.
I’ll sign off with one final quote for inspiration:
“The seeds of great discoveries are constantly floating around us, but they only take root in minds well prepared to receive them.” Joseph Henry,Physicist and Director of The Smithsonian Institution
Heres to a serendipitous future… Good luck!
We’d love to hear about your serendipitous moments. Who knows? You may even get featured in an upcoming article!