in Prism of Life

Serendipity by Design

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Whether or not we believe in Divine Providence, whether or not we believe that apparently random experiences contain meaningful lessons that are directly relevant to our life, there is much to be gained from paying attention to chance occurrences. The best opportunities arise when we approach life with an open heart and flexible mind.

Luck is hard to study, and yet scientists have uncovered the startlingly large role chance plays in love and work. Richard Wiseman, a psychologist from the University of Hertfordshire and a well known author spent a decade researching people’s perceptions of their luck. He found that those who call themselves lucky score higher on the personality factor of extraversion.

That means they are more likely to have a fortuitous encounter because they meet lots of new people and keep in touch with a large group of friends and acquaintances. These advantaged souls tend to score higher in optimism, and lower in negative emotional states.

Serendipity smiles upon people who have a more relaxed approach to life. They are pretty clear about their long-term goals but they don’t worry too much about the details. Rather than aiming to become the top cardiac surgeon at the AIIMS, they vow to be a doctor who helps save lives. Once they’ve identified their ultimate destination, they are of the opinion that there exists many different ways to get there. This at the very basic level requires openness to life’s surprising twists and turns as well as cognitive and behavioural flexibility.

An open person heads to the amusement park thinking he might encounter a potential new friend, business partner, or romantic interest. A closed person sees only amusement seekers. “Don’t classify people and situations in advance,” advises Wiseman. “Wait until you know what’s in front of you.”

You can increase your opportunities for good luck by maintaining a large network of friends and acquaintances. Due to exponential growth in Internet connectivity many of the best opportunities do float online, so make sure that you stay connected. But don’t overdo it.

Cognitive flexibility can be cultivated, too. Try challenging your brain by thinking about different points of view on a single topic. Maybe you have a firm belief that it’s high time we should regulate inter state migration through legislation. If that’s the case, please try to come up with at least 10 reasons to oppose it. You would be pleasantly surprised.

You can also learn to behave more elastically. Flexible people often respond to the same stimuli differently than their rigid counterparts. They might take varied routes to work, or stop at out-of-the-way places for a cup of coffee, rather than heading to their favourite cafe for “the usual.” Exploring new territory naturally increases good fortune.

“Do something different,” says Ben Fletcher, a psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire. It need not be even meaningful to your goal. Breaking behavioural habits can bring visible changes in mental habits that have kept you from success so far. “People’s lives can be absolutely transformed by being nudged along a slightly altered route,” says Fletcher.

Try to keep your mood positive in order to catch more of the possibilities that whiz by every day. Researchers at the University of Toronto recently demonstrated the benefit of seeing the world through rose-colored glasses. They found that people in good moods actually take in more visual information, while those in bad moods don’t see as much around them.

Because anxiety in particular gives us tunnel vision. In another experiment, people were offered a large financial reward to carefully watch a dot on a computer screen. Occasional large dots were flashed along the edges of the screen, but the participants missed them. When they looked hard, they saw less.

Wiseman conducted an experiment in which he gave subjects a newspaper and asked them to count how many photographs were inside. There were 43, and most subjects found them within a few minutes. However, they could have completed the task within seconds had they read the large type on the second page of the paper. It said “stop counting—there are 43 photographs in this newspaper.” Or they could have instead earned $250 had they noticed the half-page message that said “Stop counting, tell the experimenter you have seen this and win $250.” The subjects didn’t notice either message. But when Wiseman asked them to look through the newspaper a second time for anything unusual, they saw them immediately.

The takeaway? Allow yourself to stray off-task sometimes. We need to be loose to become aware of hidden opportunities. So even when you’re crunching to finish a project at work, participate in the cross-cubicle chatter, or follow the links from one interesting blog to the next.

“As we get older we become a lot more crystallised in our thinking. We think, ‘I shouldn’t be playing basketball because I’m 40.’ But who decided that basketball is not a proper thing for a 40-year-old to play? We create these rigid rules and eliminate chances all the time.”

Sometimes there’s a short-term cost, in terms of your resources or time or stress. Like going to a party where you really don’t know anyone, so it’s anxiety-provoking. But you end up having a great time and meeting new people. You paid a short-term cost but got a long-term benefit.

The lives of the serendipitous are not always perfect and regret-free. “Most successful businesspeople are also failed businesspeople”. “The key factor is that they go after fortuitous moments, and they’re not put off by failure once or twice.”

So stop being a master executer all the time. Every now and then we all can afford to stray off our daily routine by seizing random circumstances—like talking with the stranger in the checkout line, picking up and reading an abandoned magazine, or simply exploring a store that caught our eye. Believe me it adds value and serendipity to our life.

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