What We're Into: Preparing for Serendipity

As we've talked about before, creativity isn't a precious gift that's allowed only to certain people; it's a skill and a muscle that can be exercised over time. The great artists and thinkers of history didn't just sit down and produce masterpieces. They studied and practiced, learned from mistakes, and spent years preparing for their best work.

And yet — there is something mystical about creativity, because when you have prepared and you make time to do the work, you can find surprising sparks of inspiration. You tap into the flow, have a "eureka!" moment, and suddenly produce or think of something that you never expected.

In her book The Creative Habit, dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp calls this "the most interesting paradox of creativity": You must plan and train thoroughly, but you can never predict exactly how the creative process will go. You have to be open to unexpected insights and changes of direction. And because you're prepared, you'll be able to recognize the value in those curveballs and take advantage of them.

Happy accidents can happen in science, too: Tharp shares the story of Charles Goodyear discovering vulcanized rubber when he accidentally spilled a mix of gum and sulfur onto a hot stove. It wasn't just "dumb luck," though — Goodyear had been experimenting for years, and it was his knowledge and expertise that allowed him to recognize the value of the "accident" and replicate it in the lab. In fact, Tharp says, in creative and innovative endeavors, luck is a skill.

She also cautions against overplanning: You shouldn't cling so closely to your best-laid plans that you can't change course, or put off getting started because you're waiting for everything to be perfect. "Planning lets you impose order on the chaotic process of creating something new," Tharp writes, "but when it's taken too far you get locked into a status quo, and creative thinking is about breaking free from the status quo."

So how do we prepare while staying open to serendipity? One method we use at Connect the Grey is "cross-training" for the brain. In our Explorations series, we tour businesses, get physically active, and visit art exhibits as a way to use different types of thinking than we might on a daily basis. We intentionally focus on being more aware of our surroundings, thinking about how our individual perspectives and backgrounds affect what we perceive. We also practice giving peer-to-peer critique, pushing each other to question assumptions.

"To embrace luck, you have to enhance your tolerance for ambiguity," Tharp writes. One of the key tenets of creativity is that there is no single right answer. Creative problem-solving allows individuals and teams to work within limits, navigate around roadblocks, and pursue alternatives if one plan falls through. Connect the Grey's activities help us and those we work with "limber up" to become more flexible. When you're prepared for serendipity, you can see every unexpected change in a project as an opportunity.

Has a curveball or limitation ever led to a new breakthrough for you? Share your stories of serendipity in the comments!