Creativity and Serendipity: Making the Unexpected Happen
It is a well-known story. Viagra was supposed to be a drug reducing high blood pressure. It did not turn out to be effective for this purpose. But researchers noticed that it induced erections. From that unplanned observation, the rest is history: Serendipity in the creation of a successful drug.
There are many examples of serendipity in the creative process. A recent conference brought together scientists, educators, and artists from 11 countries and 5 continents for 24 hours of talks and experiences examining creativity and the role of serendipity in the creative process.
What is serendipity?
Serendipity is a happy coincidence. It can take the form of finding something in an unexpected way (an idea for Velcro came from burrs on a dog’s coat) or looking for one thing and finding something different altogether (such as with the example of Viagra).
Serendipity is sometimes described as luck. British psychologist Richard Wiseman devised a clever experiment for a BBC show featuring two people, one self-identifying as lucky (“good things happen to me”) and one self-identifying as unlucky (“good things happen to others”).
Wiseman created two pieces of good fortune as these people were asked to go into a coffee shop; he placed a £5 bill outside of the coffee shop and planted an actor to play a successful businessman next to the coffee counter. The "unlucky" person stayed focused on the task of getting the coffee, not noticing the bill, and not starting a conversation with the businessman. He described going to the coffee shop as uneventful. The "lucky" person noticed the money, picked it up, mood boosted. He ordered coffee, started a conversation with the businessman, and left the coffee shop with his card. He described wonderful luck at the coffee shop.
What happened with these people?
The experience of going into the coffee shop contained multiple possibilities. The money on the pavement could be noticed. A conversation could be started. Vlad Glaveanu, a psychologist at the Webster University in Geneva and founder of the Possibility Studies Network, describes that what is possible is about potential. It is a misconception that people primarily respond to stimuli — something that exists in their environment or happens around them. Rather, people imagine different possibilities and act to create situations for which they are striving. These imagined possibilities constitute a prepared mind that can take advantage of serendipity.
We achieve serendipity when we act. Both people in the coffee shop story were in the same objective situation. They both walked by a £5 bill on the pavement and ordered coffee next to a successful businessman. But only one of them noticed them. Only one of them acted to start a conversation with the businessman and leave with a business card.
Christian Busch, the author of the book, The Serendipity Mindset, explains that in order to act on triggers of serendipity, people need the courage to do so. Because serendipity is unexpected, acting on it requires us to do something new and sometimes to deviate from an existing plan. As delightful as finding serendipity looks in retrospect, it might be challenging in the moment.
The serendipity mindset is important, but so are the social enablers and constraints around us. Enablers, such as an organizational culture that allows for learning from failure (instead of punishing it), will build the courage for people to act on the unexpected. Constraints, such as organizational cultures that do not allow for deviations from five-year plans, make it more likely that people will not have the courage to take action. If those who were studying Viagra as a blood pressure medication worked in a company that enforced strict specialization and sticking to existing plans, we would not be talking about the serendipitous discovery because people would not have had the courage to act on it.
How does serendipity happen in the creative process?
Creativity is something that is new and original, while also being meaningful or appropriate. The word creativity most readily makes us think of thinking — "aha!" moment insights, brainstorming ideas, thinking outside of the box. Creative thinking is a crucial part of creativity, but not the only one. Thinking alone leaves ideas inside our heads. Creativity that has an impact, either on our personal lives, our immediate world, or society at large, takes doing.
Creativity is like a journey of 1,000 miles that starts with a single step. Chances are we are going to get lost and will have to find our way again to get to a destination. Creativity studies taught us much about the start and the end of the journey. We know how people think of ideas in response to hypothetical problems (What are all the ways you could use a tin can?) or real-world problems for which we have interest or expertise (How could you improve educational outcomes for your students?). We also know a lot about what creative products or performances look like, from mini-creativity of making new connections when learning, to little-creativity of everyday life (making a creative Halloween costume!), to professional creativity at work, and revolutionary culture-changing creativity of Einstein or Picasso.
The new frontier in creativity studies is understanding how we travel from deciding to embark on the first step of a long journey to getting to a destination. In other words, how do we go — move mentally, physically, materially — from having an idea to transforming it into something tangible?
Research in my lab at Yale University shows that whether we succeed to make creativity happen depends on four kinds of things: our expectations of ourselves and what creative work looks like, our ability to sustain effort and persist in the face of obstacles, our willingness to revise and restrategize as our ideas evolve and change, and social supports and barriers that enable or impede our progress.
Stories of serendipity in creativity tend to focus on getting the idea. Noticing something surprising or unexpected that sparks the imagination, such as in stories like the one about Viagra or Velcro. But serendipity can also help an idea that's already in our head become an achievement. Serendipity can open the crack of possibility when we need to reimagine our work and serendipity can create social supports and ways to overcome barriers on the road to achievement.
Artist Andrew Wyeth described creating conditions for serendipity and taking advantage of it when working on a painting "Distant Thunder." He knew that we can create conditions in which serendipity becomes more likely:
“The picture evolved in a strange way. I had wanted to paint my wife, Betsy, picking blueberries. I completed a number of drawings, but nothing worked. It was just someone picking – sort of trite. I really struggled, but got nowhere. Until I decided to hide. I sneaked along the edge of the woods and found her sleeping. I made a quick drawing. As I finished it, I could hear thunder way off in the direction of East Waldoboro. Suddenly, out of the grass popped our dog Rattler’s head, his ears up, cupped, hearing those distant sounds. The sky had that yellowish cast it gets before big storms. All of a sudden, I realized that there was too much face. I painted in the hat. That made the picture.”
This process is not unique to artists. We can increase the chance of serendipity in our work lives. Research in organizational psychology shows that weak social ties — occasional interactions with people we are not close with — are helpful for creative work. When we share ideas with a broad range of people, such as at conferences or office events, we can explore ideas or solve problems from different perspectives.
Serendipity can help create opportunities and support the development of creative potential. Contrary to the myth of solitary genius, creativity is in many ways social. Even when the process of creation is largely individual (such as with writers), others have an influence on it. Stephen King trashed what was going to become his first major novel, Carrie. The serendipitous thing was that his wife noticed it in the trash can, picked it out, and both encouraged him to develop it and helped him do so.
Or consider the path of Lena Richard, early 20th-century celebrity chef, cookbook author, and entrepreneur. At the age of 14, she started helping her mother who was a domestic worker for a wealthy New Orleans family. There were few opportunities for Black girls and it seemed most likely that she would spend her life following in her mother’s footsteps.
However, when the cook left, the family matron, Alice Vairin, asked Lena Richard to make dinner. Not only was the matron pleased with dinner, she decided to send the young cook to culinary school in Boston. There, Lena Richard realized how talented she was.
In 1939, she self-published her New Orleans Cookbook, which was praised by the renowned chef James Beard (for whom a top culinary award is now named). The book sold quickly and got picked up by a major publisher. By 1949, Lena Richard was a celebrity chef who cooked for the rich and famous in New York and who had her own TV show. The serendipity of working for a family that could see potential in a Black young woman created the possibilities that would not otherwise have been there. And Lena Richard was prepared to notice the opportunities and act on them.
For creative serendipity to happen, we need to expect the unexpected. A mind prepared to take advantage of opportunities will help and social supports will make it possible. Creativity and serendipity both require us to take action and work with the unexpected. Dare to take an unexpected turn. When we do, the result is better than what we could have expected.
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