Serendipity is an algorithm: here’s my source code

Jon Barnes
Jun 8, 2017 · 9 min read

I spoke at Creative Mornings in Gothenburg recently. The video is here. The text below is more or less my notes before speaking when I was thinking it through in my head. Thought I may as well include anyway for those who prefer text.

There is a new way of doing ‘business’

It doesn’t abide by the archaic rules that many businesses live by. I could moan about the nonsense of it for hours, the fact people literally own our time, that we don’t get to choose where we work best…etc. But today I’d like to focus on one really positive principle that I think we can design into our work: serendipity and how it can be designed into our lifestyles and our work. To have an organisation without the requisite environment for serendipity to occur is to miss out on many great opportunities.

I remember years ago, an old friend of mine said to me:

An incredibly frustrating comment. I am lucky, I was born white, middle class, well educated… so of course I’m lucky. And so is he. But this isn’t what I’m talking about.

Unlike luck, serendipity can be engineered

What differentiates serendipity from luck is that serendipity can be engineered, it can be designed, it can be nurtured and watered, and when looked after, serendipity can look after us. It can take a life of its own.

Simply put, serendipity is when the connection between things, leads to something positive. That can be the connection between people, ideas, neurons, technologies, cultures but it is fundamentally an event whereby things connect leading to something wonderful.

So if serendipity is simply a series of positive connections that can be engineered, then serendipity can be calculated. In fact, I would go as far as saying that serendipity is an algorithm.

My source code for serendipity

We’ll explore this algorithm in more detail, but in it’s simplest form, it looks like this:

Level of serendipity = quality of connections x quantity of connections

But the question begs what conditions are necessary to achieve both a high quantity and quality of connections? And what different elements can connect? What factors are required for many good connections to occur?

I break these down into the following:

  • How we spend our time
  • Where we spend our time
  • Who we spend our time with
  • What ideas we embrace and what thoughts we have
  • How we turn up and how real we are
  • How much space we create for ourselves and for connections to occur
  • How well we look after ourselves

Unlike it’s smug cousin Luck, for which we deserve no credit (such as the gender, sexuality, race, family, wealth…etc we are born into), these elements which dictate serendipity are all things that we can control. The difference between people who experience serendipity often and those who don’t comes down to how intentional and smart we are at optimising these different factors. Let me tell you how we can do this…

Time: emptying it to fill it with the right elements

Time is of course the kingpin of serendipity. Time decides everything. If you aren’t the master of your time, you cannot possibly be the master of the connections that happen within that time. Choosing how you spend your time is therefore key to serendipity. Time is the space within which connections happen. If you’re time is full, then there is no room for connections to occur. This is why working 9 to 5 jobs, with high levels of routine and predictable events (such as meetings) is a serendipity killer. Which in the case of a business is a huge opportunity cost.

So we must choose our time. I would go as far as saying we must be minimalists and essentialists. Empty out our time and filling it carefully, only with elements that may lead to meaningful connections.

Try: cancelling meaningless meetings, saying no more, blocking out time to walk, having two hour lunches, working fewer days in the week,

People: hanging out with the right people

Now of course, one of the types of connections that has the most propensity for serendipity is people. When likeminded people connect, amazing things can happen. If we aren’t choosing how we spend our time, it is very unlikely we are choosing who we spend our time with. A great shame considering that it is those meetings of minds that can lead to love and joy and creativity. There is little like the connection between two human beings who have something beautiful to offer each other. Yet, many of us have little room to meet the love of our lives, or our creative partner, or the robin to our batman. We are too ‘busy’ doing to have room for serendipitous connections to occur. We have no time for meeting strangers just because it’s a nice thing to do, or to seek out likeminded souls to share with.

But equally, spending time with the wrong people can be a huge drain on our ability to connect. If we spend our time with the wrong people this has wripple effects on our creativity, our mood, our ideas. It is sometimes called a ‘mood hoover’ or in this case a ‘serendipity sucker’. The minimalist approach to people is to invest in those with whom we have the potential for amazing connections and to divest in those people with which we see little future for serendipity. What we are left with is the gems in our lives with whom our relationships bring reciprocal joy. We free each other up to meet other people better suited to our serendipitous sluttiness. I’m not advocating being utilitarian when it comes to people, as we’ll see later that will certainly not attract serendipity. We must of course help and support others just because being nice is nice. But I do think that ‘divesting’ from flat or even destructive relationships is good for all parties. You may actually be doing them a favour.

Try: asking yourself which of your relationships are reciprocal and which ones aren’t, making time for people who make you buzz and people you love, try admitting to yourself which of your ‘friendships’ aren’t really going anywhere, try giving to those you love; try actively blocking time to meet new people just for the sake of meeting somebody new

Place: going where the energy is

Of course, the people we meet are often a function of the places we spend our time in. If you’re into fine art and spending your time in an office cubicle, it’s unlikely that serendipitous connections within the field of fine arts will come knocking at your door. If you aren’t choosing where you spend your time, then your serendipity index will be very low.

The modern world of work allows us to find so much freedom and the freedom to choose when we do things and where we do them is therefore vital. If we have occupations that don’t allow us to spend time in the fields within which we would like to nurture serendipity then we have the wrong occupation. We are actively choosing to spend time in places where nothing of much positive outcome will happen for us and where little joy will come from.

Time and space are the biggest freedoms we have to exercise if we are to optimise our serendipity algorithm.

Try: spending time where you are most creative and blocking time out to do so, try spending more time in nature, try hanging out where inspiring people go (whoever they are for you)

Thoughts & ideas: cultivating healthy thoughts and connecting them to create great ideas

And space, where we spend our time, has another huge impact on our lives. It is the field within which we plan the thoughts we have. Spend your time in grey offices, with dizzying lighting and you will have dizzy thoughts. Spend your time in the places you feel the most clear and you will feel clear.

Emptying our calendars and selecting where we spend our time in our new spacious calendar allows for connections in every sense of the word. Once emptied, you may choose to add long walks to your diary if that is where you think best. You may choose coffee shops because that is where you meet people. You may choose to read because you connect with great thinkers.

In the 21st century our creativity is our greatest currency and the quality of our creativity depends on little else than the quality our thoughts. These thoughts must be nurtured, they must be intentionally planted in amazing places, with amazing people.

Try: meditating every morning and every night, the moodnotes app, journalling, pausing to realise as often as possible that the story in your head is fiction and you get to change that however hard it seems

Being real: being me and how to show up

It’s all very well to say ‘empty your life and fill it with the right stuff’ but why would good connections come our way? Why would good ideas turn up? Why would good people turn up…?

Well here’s a simple model I created a while back. Essentially, if we act or pretend to be something we’re not we will attract people and projects who like the actor we display. The only way to end up doing the things we like doing is to be us. If we are somebody else that will be te reality we are served. So there is no choice to be authentic.

How can we attract like-minded people if we don’t share what’s actually on our mind.

Try: sharing your vision early with people you feel safe with, admitting to yourself when you’re bullshitting or pretending, try monitoring your body for any weird sensations that indicate you may not be being totally real, being open

Space: the common denominator

The biggest unifying factor to increasing the amount of serendipity in our lives, is space. Having space in our diaries, choosing the spaces we frequent and creating headspace. When we create space, we are nurturing our ability to choose and when we nurture our ability to choose we are choosing the kinds of connections we create.

That space includes space away from ‘things’. Less things is something I think is essential to reduce physical, mental and emotional clutter. I really do think that for everything you own, you are taking up some of your personal CPU. This is why I have reduced everything I own down to one bag. I don’t advocate necessarily being that minimalist about reducing your possessions but I can’t advocate enough the benefits of decluttering and minimising the number of silly choices we force ourselves to make on a daily basis (e.g. what shall I wear today?) which can weigh on our cognitive load.

Try: giving away, selling or recycling anything you don’t need (functionally) or don’t love (emotionally), using technology far far less, turning off your notifications, being careful about the media you consume (particularly social networks)

Self: nurturing wellth

All this is fine in practice but it really does depend on how we live. If we’re tired, unhealthy, stressed…etc we can’t see opportunities if they punch us in the face. Which is why our daily habits from big to small are so important! You could geek on this all day but some basics are so important and I’ll reduce them to waking up and going to sleep.

If the beginning of your day involves a screen then before you know it you haven’t controlled your thoughts or your intentions for the day. If you have screens around you before bed then you haven’t controlled your sleep either. These habits are so important. If you struggle for mental space and you have 5 coffees a day, that’s the same.

I think these are some the basics of a life where you are fit to befriend serendipity. I’m always trying to tweak my algorithm based on what seems to work for me or not, I suggest you do the same.

Try: never using an alarm clock, never using tech or having meetings first thing, starting the day by setting an intention or reading a list of dreams and goals or going for a walk, try having an hour before bed dedicated to totally chilling out, try hot water vinegar and honey before bed, try always meditating before bed

The final equation: wrapping up our algorithm

So the more complete algorithm goes something like:

Serendipity = time x people x place x thoughts x authenticity x space x self

If we pay attention to these different elements, we can create the context within which love can manifest itself. Within which friendships can flourish. Within which purpose and meaning can emerge.

So maybe serendipity is an algorithm, but not in the purely scientific sense of algorithm which brings up visions of computer code. Serendipity might well be an algorithm in the artistic and musical sense of the word. And like music, we must dedicate ourselves to it, we must practice it, we must master our craft for it to be beautiful.

It is by practicing this craft that we leave space for amazing things to emerge.

I wish you just that.

Be well.


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