How to Turn the Unexpected into a Creative Discovery

There was no other way to explain it, but that the results of Wilhelm Roentgen's discovery of the X-ray was simply serendipity. But how to explain serendipity? Is it happenstance? A brilliant, unexpected discovery?

The answers are - Yes and No.

The word, serendipity, was coined by Horace Walpole in 1754. Walpole wrote to a friend that he had made an unexpected discovery and referenced it to a Persian fairy tale, The Three Princes of Serendip. The princes in the story were traveling and having adventures and along the way making discoveries, by accident, of "things which they were not in quest of."

More recent examples of discoveries that came about by accident, or serendipity, is Alexander Fleming's discovery of penicillin 1928.

Fleming was aware that the ancient Egyptians began the notion of curing infection with applying a piece of moldy bread to infected wounds.

As the story goes, when Fleming returned to his laboratory after a vacation on September 3, 1928, he began to sort through his petri dishes which contained colonies of Staphylococcus, bacteria that cause boils, sore throats and abscesses he's left sitting while he was away. He saw something unusual. One of the dishes had dots of individual colonies, and one area had a blob of mold growing. The area immediately around the mold—later identified as a rare strain of Penicillium notatum—was clear, as if the mold had secreted something that inhibited bacterial growth. Without setting out to create the world’s first antibiotic, there it was.

Another example of serendipity was the invention of the microwave oven by Percy Spencer in 1945. He was working for Raytheon at the time. While he was in his lab, he noticed that microwaves from an active radar set he was working on started to melt a candy bar in his pocket. He next tested this theory with popcorn kernels. It was the first microwave popcorn.

The invention of the Post-It note by Spencer Silver, was another serendipitous accident. Silver was working at 3M in 1968, trying to create super strong adhesives for use in the aerospace industry in building planes. Instead of a super strong adhesive, though, he accidentally managed to create an incredibly weak, pressure sensitive adhesive that could be removed without harming other materials.

Mistakes or Discoveries?

If all of these accidental inventions were seen as mistakes, we wouldn't have them today. We need to see what could have been as part of our creativity. To be open to another way of seeing a solution while we are looking elsewhere.

J.H. Austin, a neurologist who studied the meaning of serendipity and creativity, wanted to discover the understanding of serendipity from a theoretical perspective as it relates to the creative mind.

In a paper he discusses four types of opportunistic discovery of information which he breaks down to:

  • Blind luck (chance that comes with no effort)
  • Happy accidents (chance which is due to exposure to seemingly unconnected facts and experiences)
  • Prepared mind (chance is perceived due to exposure to many facts related to the problem at hand)
  • Individual (chance favors a particular individual as a result of the person's distinctive knowledge or interest).

How Random is Research?

Similarly, Daniel Liestman, in his paper, "Chance in the Midst of Design: Approaches to Library Research Serendipity," proposes six approaches to serendipity in information research, including:

  • Coincidence: chance encounters as a result of random luck.
  • Prevenient grace: (Definition- Theological concept rooted in Arminian theology, though it appeared earlier in Catholic theology. It is divine grace that precedes human decision.) A chance occurs because of efforts performed by those who are unseen and unknown.
  • Synchronicity :(Definition-simultaneous occurrence of events that appear significantly related but have no discernible causal connection.)Serendipity is a result of the concurrence of two meaningful but not causally connected events.
  • Perseverance: chance is encouraged by looking hard for information.
  • Altamirage: (Definition- introduced to call attention to that special personal quality by which good luck is prompted as a result of personally distinctive actions) Serendipity happens as a result of the distinguished habit, expertise or character of an individual.
  • Sagacity:(Definition-foresight, discernment, or keen perception; ability to make good judgments.) Serendipity is due to a "random juxtaposition of ideas, in which loose pieces of information frequently undergo a period of incubation in the mind and are brought together by the demands of some external events."

The Next Big Thing

As we research ideas for our 'next big thing" do we allow ourselves to move beyond our original idea? Staying focused has always been a virtue if we believe we can't accomplish our task without going too far off course. But what do we miss by being too narrowly focused? Do we allow ourselves to change our minds or discover a new opportunity or a different solution to the problem?

Malcolm Gladwell, a writer for the New Yorker and author of Outliers, Tipping Point and Blink, spoke at Stanford University in April, 2010 as the keynote speaker for “Medicine and the Muse: An Arts, Humanities and Medicine Symposium.”

Gladwell illustrated his story of serendipity using an example of a small pharmaceutical company, Synta, in Cambridge, Mass. It had two drugs in development and it was in serious financial trouble. It had conducted a couple of very costly clinical trials to assess of their drug’s efficacy. News arrived that one of the drugs was ineffective. The firm's CEO, Safi Bahcall, had to fire some employees and he was devastated.

As Gladwell explained, Bahcall, a PhD physicist who lived a life of logic and science, “had encountered a world where your heart really did get broken.”

There were several grim meetings, Gladwell said. Totally unexpected, an employee brought news about the company's other cancer treatment drug, called Elesclomol. It had failed two previous clinical trials. There was no expectation it would succeed in the third and final trial. It was not the drug the company was focused on and it was pitted it against metastatic melanoma, one of the worst and deadliest human cancers.

Elesclomol, it turned out, seemed to work on melanoma. “People started hugging, there was delirious pandemonium.”

Unfortunately, though, closer scrutiny ultimately showed that Elesclomol was a failure. The point, Gladwell explained, was not about whether Synta succeeded or failed, but how it found and pursued new drugs.

Serendipity and Technology

In the highly charged world of innovation and technology, serendipity could exist in every incubator where would-be innovators are heads-down are determined to invent something people never thought they would ever need or want. It's impossible to know how many apps are created but were never intended.

Technology has made our brains larger, our hearts more full and our ability for compassion global. We can see, hear and taste what is happening to others around the world and do something to help. From our own four walls, we can search for answers and find something we didn’t know exists. With that knowledge and ability to connect, we can help strangers heal and make it possible for the hungry to have one more meal.

With the ability of a connected life, our online library gives us answers we never thought we were looking for.

Searching is a perfect example of serendipity, much as Liestman's study on library research. How often do we come across a valuable or interesting site when we are looking for something else?

The role of creativity in a serendipitous circumstance is something we should embrace.

Just as the three princes made their unexpected discoveries in the Persian fairy tale, The Three Princes of Serendip, so should we when we take a journey into discovery and see what happens along the way.