How do I find what I am not looking for?
April 9, 2009 9:00 AM   Subscribe

How do you increase serendipity?

This is necessarily a rather general question, but I want to know about effective habits and behaviors for increasing the chances of stumbling across something useful but not sought for.

A few examples of what I think function this way for me: reading MetaFilter, having RSS feeds of blogs and journals that are only of marginal interest, and looking through stacks of unsorted used books. I'm hoping the Hive Mind knows about some other strategies.
posted by parudox to Grab Bag (22 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
Mindfulness. I'm serious. When you are completely present and aware of your surroundings, you see a lot of stuff that you would have otherwise missed. Some of that stuff is really, really useful to you, and some of it is just purely enjoyable (like the robins on my lawn yesterday).
posted by desjardins at 9:02 AM on April 9, 2009 [8 favorites]

If you want to learn things, optimize the mix of intake (kind of what you describe above) and opportunity for reflection (access to information isn't everything).

If you want to be involved in things, put yourself in a position where you and your best attributes will be engaged, encountered, and favorably noted.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 9:03 AM on April 9, 2009

I agree with jesjardins. Just be open to it -- it will come.
posted by jgirl at 9:06 AM on April 9, 2009

To me it's more a matter of paying attention and then later reflecting on what I've seen than necessarily exposing myself to very new experiences. I think that a lot of the time it's very easy to ignore all of what's going on around you because most of it is just more of the same. Just a thought.
posted by frieze at 9:10 AM on April 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

The answer has got to depend on what you are trying to optimize serendipitously. Based on the OP's question, mindfulness must be an incomplete answer. You may better understand yourself, you may better understand reality, but that damn robin isn't doing much for you except telling you where the worms are.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 9:10 AM on April 9, 2009

I find that exposing myself to things that are completely unrelated to what I know helps me to make interesting and useful connections and metaphors in my head. Reading stuff about biology and math and linguistics will prompt me to think, oh, whatever I'm doing is similar in these ways and different in these ways--ruminating on that will open up the serendipitous ah-ha moment.

Also, keeping everything you've read searchable helps a lot. It doesn't have to be really complex--I read RSS through Google Reader, so if later I want to find that one blog post about fMRIs as lie detectors, I can just search it.
posted by lockestockbarrel at 9:28 AM on April 9, 2009

that damn robin isn't doing much for you except telling you where the worms are.

I respectfully disagree. There is plenty of psychological and spiritual benefit to being present to nature. Besides, if you're an entomologist or ornithologist, it would be useful in a practical way.
posted by desjardins at 9:50 AM on April 9, 2009

You can't necessarily predict the associations and ideas elicited by awareness of aspects of yourself or the surroundings, so I'd say increased awareness definitely counts as an answer.

I guess there is probably a spectrum of strategies between serendipity in a specific area (which might just be called research) and being open to "unknown unknowns", and increased awareness is towards the latter end.
posted by parudox at 10:02 AM on April 9, 2009

This is slightly off-topic, but Richard Wiseman did a study of luck -- what makes some people lucky and others un, with insights about how to better make your own -- that I've found pretty helpful over the years. PDF (download) is here.
posted by janet lynn at 10:21 AM on April 9, 2009 [3 favorites]

Here's what works for me:

* Browse in of a library, especially sections you rarely go to.
* Click 'random' on Wikipedia.
* Walk around your city or some other area, paying attention to your surroundings.
* Write down interesting questions to ask people around you. Ask those questions.
* Bring up odd subjects to people.
* Go to people whose job it is to answer questions, librarians, tourist information things, and ask about interesting places and books and so on.
* Talk to strangers (cafés are generally good for that).
* Join Google Reader.
posted by Kattullus at 10:40 AM on April 9, 2009 [2 favorites]

Kattullus is onto it. The key to serendipity is to break out of habits, to constantly expose yourself to new and different things. If you have 2 hours to browse the Internet, reading 4 different sites for half an hour would be more effective than 2 hours at Metafilter (even though we are the Best of the Web).

Doing as many different things as possible, taking risks, and exposing yourself to more facets of life will increase "serendipity." You'll also live "longer," not necessarily in absolute terms, but in perceived terms. Our brains compress experiences into "chunks," so a year of work gets compressed into a vague memory. By doing more things differently, your brain chunks less of the memory, and you'll find that you've had a more vibrant, interesting life.
posted by explosion at 10:50 AM on April 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

that damn robin isn't doing much

There are generally two "modes", if you will, to being creative or problem solving or anything in that vein.

One is to do some work thinking the the issue/problem/topic, doing research, exploring it from all angles, and so on.

The other is to get your mind completely off the topic and give it a rest.

Even if the robin is doing nothing more than that--helping to give your mind a rest from whatever normally occupies it, to allow time and space for that creativity to develop--that bird already doing a lot.

If it's helping your mental health, it's doing even more.

And if it actually gives you some direct inspiration (and why not--it's happened before), then so much the better.
posted by flug at 10:51 AM on April 9, 2009

that damn robin isn't doing much for you except telling you where the worms are.

I respectfully disagree. There is plenty of psychological and spiritual benefit to being present to nature. Besides, if you're an entomologist or ornithologist, it would be useful in a practical way.

I take the point, and it is up to the OP to say whether s/he is searching for being "present to" whatever is being contemplated -- nature or otherwise (and if s/he was an entomologist or ornithologist, or wildlife photographer, or fisherman, the example would be a home run).

This conceded, the OP said "I want to know about effective habits and behaviors for increasing the chances of stumbling across something useful but not sought for." So we are asked to imagine that the OP will be staring at the robin (by way of example), which is *not* sought out for its relevance, and trying to stumble upon something *else*. I put in a good word for ruminating, but there is a tradeoff involved between staring at a robin on the lawn and, e.g., reading tons of divergent materials and meeting lots of cool people. Unless we think that everything in the world is really about one thing.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 10:53 AM on April 9, 2009

Hallucinogenic drugs, famously acid, are known for causing a "false epiphany" experience, this will often be something that feels serendipitous. You could say it "turns up the sensitivity" to serendipity. You will get false positives, but also notice ones you may have missed. There are ways of thinking or experiencing the world that will also work this way without the need of drugs, especially a certain kind of childishness (like Bjork's personality). Knowing how to go into that mental state without being permanently stuck there is extremely helpful, acting classes can help with this, as can meditation, improv, and role playing games.
posted by idiopath at 11:24 AM on April 9, 2009 [4 favorites]

Kattullus and explosion allude to something that I've heard referred to as reticular activation. Ever notice how when you buy a new car, or start thinking about buying a new car, all the sudden you start to see more of them around you? Thinking about new things makes you more conscious and aware of them in the huge vastness of data around you. It's the same reason that you can hear your name spoken across the room at a cocktail party or a mother can instantly recognize her newborn's cry.

That's what they say, at least.

If it's true, and you want to experience greater and more varied awareness, you need to expose yourself to many different topic areas. Kattullus had some great suggestions. Browsing the library is one preferred method of mine - make it a project to hit every subsection of the dewey decimal catalog over the course of a year. Use stumbleupon to find random web pages. Try the current events portal on Wiki and you'll suddenly start noticing news stories about obscure countries or cultures that you were never aware of before. Ever since I took up photography and started learning about composition and lighting, I've noticed beautiful sunsets more often or amazing color contrast in seemingly mundane environments. When I learned about astronomy, I started looking up more often, noticing whether there was "earth shine" on the moon, and lot's more. Learn about varied topics, and you'll start a chain reaction.
posted by RobotNinja at 12:46 PM on April 9, 2009 [3 favorites]

Read a newspaper, cover to cover, every day. When I do this, so often I end up in a situation where I refer back to that story in some bizarre way. Read the articles that sound dull or incredibly pedestrian. At the very least, you will learn a lot about current events. What usually happens to me, though, is that I make a startling number of connections to my everyday life, either while reading or afterward.
posted by amicamentis at 1:46 PM on April 9, 2009

Read. Read a lot.

As an engineer, I find the best way to make connections and innovations is by knowing as much as possible about very diverse fields.

For instance, I used to work in toys and would read up on scientific discoveries and industrial practices. Then, we'd be doing a brainstorm and while others were thinking only in terms of the current product, I would have an idea related to hay balers because I had read about them recently.

I find TRIZ to be very helpful in coming up with these types of associations. By generalizing ideas I come across in reading when I store them in my head, I am more likely to make the association later on.

(There have been some studies on this type of generalization and idea generation. MeMail me if you are interested in the references. The results of most of them is that more exposure and storing the ideas in your head in some sort of general problem solving form---i.e. instead of thinking of something as a car, think of it as a way to get from A to B---gives the best results for future association.)
posted by chiefthe at 2:12 PM on April 9, 2009

Focus your attention on your senses (vision, smell, hearing, touch, taste) and let the thinking fall behind. Let your mind wonder. Notice how your body reacts to different sensations and different thoughts, while letting them pass you by. At some point, you'll feel something rising from the stream/noise, like a wave. Put your attention on it and ride it.
posted by andreinla at 5:13 PM on April 9, 2009

take lsd.
posted by apostrophe at 10:24 PM on April 9, 2009

I think deliberately doing new things, like walking a different route or eating something different for lunch because they take you out of autopilot. Go see some contemporary classical music or avant garde electronic music perhaps. For me, that stuff basically stops time because I don't really have a frame of reference for understanding (and sometimes, enjoying) it.
posted by snofoam at 7:01 AM on April 10, 2009

Oh, and take LSD.
posted by snofoam at 7:02 AM on April 10, 2009

Thanks everyone! Definitely some good answers here.
posted by parudox at 11:25 PM on April 10, 2009

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