December 5, 2019

From inventing life-saving drugs to stumbling across underrated restaurants, serendipity plays an important role in discoveries both exceptional and quotidian. Attesting to this importance are countless books and articles on how we can and should design our lives for these unplanned but beneficial encounters. These books encourage us to go to networking events even when we don’t feel like it and to listen to new songs instead of our heavy-rotation playlists. The logic underlying such advice is that if we simply have more encounters, we’ll be more likely to have a serendipitous one. In this view, events and encounters are like raindrops—some of which engender happy accidents—and we want to spread ourselves out to catch as many raindrops as possible. Can we engineer serendipity just by maximising our surface area to receive it?

Nowhere is this myth more apparent than in the rise and ongoing demise of open-plan office design. Bringing down physical walls in offices in the belief that it’ll increase interaction and thus collaboration and innovation is the very embodiment of this approach. And for years, office workers have felt the toll that such an environment exacts on their psychology and productivity. Confirming what people already intuitively know, Harvard researchers showed in a recent study that as the walls came down, face-to-face interaction fell by a depressing 70%. This is a good idea, in theory, that has backfired in reality. In an effort to design for our external environment, we seem to have left people out of the equation.

A robot will always respond “correctly” to the external environment or task that you’ve designed for it. People, on the other hand, throw a wrench into the works because our actions and responses are also influenced by our internal environment. To further complicate things, our internal environment interacts with our surroundings in sometimes unpredictable ways. In the case of open-plan offices, this assumption of encouraging teamwork ironically exhausts our psychological resources by forcing us to defend our personal space all day, or find ways to shield ourselves from the barrage of noise and distraction.

The failure of open-plan offices suggests, amongst other things, that serendipity is not just something that falls upon us. Instead, to see connections between fragmented events or to actually take advantage of chance encounters, we need to have psychological resources. To get a sense of what those resources may be and how we can cultivate and maintain them within ourselves, it’s useful to look at the other extreme—burn out. Research shows that when people are burnt out, they’re completely drained of internal resources and it manifests in feeling exhausted, cynical, and unconfident. These are good places to start thinking about our own psychological resources and how it affects our ability to encounter serendipity.

Exhaustion is an obvious one. I sometimes joke on my social media that 90 per cent of my work life is feeling tired and the other 10 per cent is meetings. But the kernel of truth in that is the reason why there’s an alarming amount of advice, products, and services targeted at fatigue. I’ve written before about a pervasive culture where giving up or even taking breaks are perceived as a sign of weakness. The antidote to setbacks or things not happening as we planned is often to double down and put in more effort and energy. This triggers a chronic cycle of fatigue that sleeping in on the weekends or a short trip to Bali cannot fix. Recall any day when you felt psychologically wiped out, you probably just wanted to fuse with your couch and let the TV turn your brain to mush. Even if you’re out at a networking event, you can’t muster up genuine interest or the energy to connect.

When your resources are depleted, you also stop finding joy and value in doing things. You may find yourself wondering, “What’s the point of even doing this?” This dismissive attitude should not be confused with being critical or sceptical, We need a healthy level of scepticism that helps us discern opportunities and decide where or what’s worth spending our time on. But when we become cynical, it colours how we see and interact with our surroundings—making us disengage because we believe that there’s no point or purpose in doing so. If you’re unable or unwilling to engage, no matter how wonderful the opportunity or enlightening the piece of information is, you would have missed the boat.

The last and perhaps most insidious aspect of psychological resources in cases of burn out, is the lack of self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is not merely confidence. Having swagger doesn’t necessarily mean that someone believes that they can exert control over their own motivation, behaviour, and environment. This belief is foundational to any human endeavour, but more than anything to serendipity because it demands that we feel abled instead of frightened to grasp the opportunities we didn’t anticipate. Encountering serendipity requires often a leap of faith into the unknown. And we can’t seize it if we don’t trust our ability to affect change in our own lives.

When we’re tired, out of bandwidth, we start avoiding rather than approaching conversations, venturing out to new places, or taking breaks from our routine—there just isn’t enough internal capacity to process. The same principle of needing additional resources underlies the decision to have “slack” in companies that value innovation. The unutilised resources ensure the system is not easily overwhelmed and that there’s actually space for serendipity to happen. Fortune favours the prepared mind but being prepared goes beyond working hard or doing more—we also need to have psychological slack. If you value serendipity in your work and personal life, know that you’re not a machine. Don’t stretch yourself thin, experiment with creating space in your life to invite unplanned encounters—and when they happen, you’ll have the resources to engage.