Friday, May 29, 2009

Serendipity

Biologist Sir Alexander Fleming was researching a strain of bacteria before he went on holiday in 1928. Upon his return he noticed that he left out a glass culture dish and it had become contaminated with a fungus, so he threw it away. Later, Sir Alexander Fleming noticed that the bacteria he had been studying was unable to grow in the area surrounding the fungal mold. This is now known as penicillin.

In 1945 Percy Spencer, and American engineer, was doing work on early radar systems involving magnetrons. While standing near the functioning magnetron, Percy Spencer noticed that a chocolate bar in his pocket began to melt. This led to the creation of the microwave oven.

On a hot day at the 1904 World’s Fair, ice cream was especially popular with the people in attendance. At this time, ice cream was served on a dish, and the vendor was running out of dishes. A neighboring stall selling wafer thin waffles from Persia (called Zalabia) was not particularly doing good business, so the ice cream vendor asked if the Zalabia maker could roll his waffles into cones so that he could place the ice cream in it. Thus the ice cream cone was created.

Serendipity, the accidental discovery of something useful, surrounds us all the time but is rarely noticed because we are too busy looking at our target and forget our surroundings.

Attentional focus runs in width and direction, but because the human experience primarily focuses on the directional aspect, we lose half of our vision purely by neglect. Just looking forward or backwards does not lend itself to serendipity unless we run right into it, or we notice that we have passed it by and must reverse our course. Yes, we can have a serendipitous moment focusing on a singular plane, but just imagine what we are missing by not expanding our vision.

It isn’t until we are able to create width to our vision that we will ever be able to see the opportunity that is outside of our unilateral focus. We live in a multi dimensional world yet create a two dimensional attention span of front to back. In doing so, more life passes us by than we actually allow ourselves to live.

In order to create serendipity, we must allow ourselves to discover something fortunate when looking for something entirely different. This means that we must be willing to notice our surroundings as much as we are willing to keep our eye on the prize. It is important to know that the prize many times is not what we think it is, it is what we make it. Noticing opportunity and then acting on it might change what we originally decided to strive for, but can also serendipitously enhance our lives more than the original plan.

Teflon, bioelectricity, X-rays, and the Slinky are all creations of people being aware of more than just the task at hand. Your next best self is out there as well, as long as you are able to get your eyes of the mechanics of what you are doing and notice the melting chocolate bar in your pocket.

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