Thursday, July 28, 2011

Plotting for serendipity

I rarely eat lunch at my desk. Eating lunch in a cafeteria is such a precious opportunity to waste. I plot for serendipity. That's right. Some of the best conversations that I have had with people — on my way to a cafetaria or in the cafeteria — are purely serendipitous, but they're not purely accidental. I even pick a cafeteria that requires me to walk a little more. I believe you can always create opportunities for good things to happen to you. When people say "It's a small world", they are so wrong. The world isn't small but they're at the right place at the right time to think it's a coincidence. The coincidences do happen but there's a larger force behind orchestrating the possibilities for such coincidences to occur.

The same applies to creativity. You can design an epiphany.

I have heard people say that they had an epiphany while they were in shower. It's not the shower but it's illumination followed by a prolonged incubation, two phases of creativity. The other two phases are preparation and verification. Preparation is a phase where you decide that you want to solve a specific problem. When you continue to work on a problem over a period of time, your brain, the unconscious, never stops working on it even if consciously you're not spending any time on it. This is called incubation. This lasts for a while. The "shower moment" is the illumination phase where you finally figured out a solution, after your brain unconsciously kept solving it for the entire night, and hence the metaphor of glowing bulb for innovation. What remains is the verification phase to prove that the solution works. We all do this, but we don't spend enough time on the incubation phase and hence many ideas don't go beyond that. You can plot for this epiphany by not letting a problem go for a while even though you think that you don't have enough time to work on it. I tell my students to start working on their projects early on for better results for that purpose. It feels counterintuitive that you could solve a problem by spending less time on it as long as you keep solving it for a longer duration off and on.

I have blogged about cloud being a natural platform to design tools that could create network effects. The tools that create network effects also offer an opportunity for digital serendipity. I have discovered many people through Twitter and learned quite a few things that I would have never explicitly made an attempt to learn. And, I'm not the only one who has had such an experience. I'm a big fan of social tools and platforms that enable opportunities for such serendipity to occur. There're only so many cafes and water fountains in the physical world; the digital world is far bigger in that sense.

Design your routine to plot for serendipity and epiphany and credit yourself instead of the shower. Creativity can be tricked. You will be positively surprised.

Cross-posted on my personal blog

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