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I was always really passionate about people and behavior and understanding why some people were brilliant at handling pressure other people weren't. Or why athletes really struggle with retirement; what was the transition problem and all those kinds of things.
That it led me down a path to your book. Maybe you could tell me a little bit about your story about how you got to where you are?
Indeed, I actually was kicked out of high school, I was this kind of rebellious teenager who was trying to push any and every boundary And I think that's where the search for meaning started that I've been embarking on.
I started reading Victor Frankel's “Man's Search for Meaning”, which is extremely inspirational because it's all about the idea of how do we find meaning even in the direst of situations and circumstances?
I tried to understand what is it that gets me excited, and that gives me meaning.
I realized what I enjoy the most is connecting people, connecting ideas, and that spark that comes from doing that.
I started out as a community builder, and then an entrepreneur solopreneur, and then veered into academia.
But I think the core that I found fascinating is how the most purpose-driven, successful, inspirational people around me, they seem to have in common that they cultivate creativity, they see something unexpected, and then turn that into positive outcomes.
That's really how the book and everything else came about.
When you came to write the book, was there a specific goal in your mind? Or was it more a case of you believed in all these philosophies, and I'm going to just pull them all together on the paper?
Yeah, I mean, it came out of serendipity, being honest.
I had done work and research on purpose and meaning and how to integrate that into an organization for a long time. I wanted to write a book about it and bring it all together, and serendipity popped up.
I remember being on holiday in Myanmar, and I pitched the idea of the book to friends of mine, who are avid book readers and they were like, yeah, you know, this sounds interesting. ‘do you have other ideas?’
I spent the night essentially kind of going through all my different research and all the things I had written and pulled it all together in that book.
I grew up in Germany. And to me ambiguity, unpredictability uncertainty is the worst thing that can happen to me because it gives me anxiety.
What I realized is mindset really helps us to redefine uncertainty and unpredictability to something that we can manage in some ways. And that can give us meaning and can lead us to success.
I realised, wow, there is something here that could actually help a lot of people and that could be integrated into universities and training programs. I was excited about the transferability of it.
When you talk about serendipity, and particularly in relation to how it has affected your life, help us understand a little bit about what serendipity means and examples maybe of it in your life?
Yeah, serendipity is an unexpected positive outcome that resulted out of unplanned moments where we did something, versus doing nothing.
So to give an example, imagine the situation if you have erratic hand movements as I do, and you're in a coffee shop, and you spill coffee over someone.
You have two options, right? What do you do about this moment?
Option number one is you just say, I'm so sorry, here's the napkin, you walk outside.
The other option, of course, is you say, ‘Oh, my God, I'm so sorry. I was just thinking about X,Y,Z idea... and you start a conversation.
That could lead to a new romantic partner, you might meet your co-founder. So really, these kinds of moments that are unplanned, unexpected, but turn into positive outcomes based on our own action.
In my life, I feel like most of how I met my romantic partners, how I met my co-founders was always that kind of moment, where you had to do something at that moment to make it happen.
Serendipity is very different blind luck, which is all about being born into a loving family, or having some kind of inherited inheritance or something, we can't influence.
Serendipity is a process we can influence because it is about making accident meaningful. But also, and we can probably talk about this also creating more meaningful accidents. Creating moments in which positive unexpected things can evolve.
I love that, it's such a brilliant philosophy.
The idea about creating more meaningful accidents, what a brilliant phrase, and maybe talk to me a little bit about that. Because I have a philosophy I use in my work it's this principle, that it is not the event that causes suffering but your opinion of it.
I've been going to my own personal stuff recently, my father passed away a few weeks ago, and he's sick a long time. I was incredibly close to him. And it was a hugely devastating event, losing him.
I spoke to my brother, and we remember something that was really cool about him, and we've kind of taken that event and turned it into something positive. I think my interpretation of what you're saying, is first off, you acknowledge the event, it's only devastating if you accept it to be devastating, but it's then the action you take off the back of that event. I'd love to hear more about this meaningful accident kind of idea, because I think there's a brilliant phrase.
Yeah, well, first of all, I'm sorry to hear about your Dad.
This is how what I found most inspiring about Viktor Frankl. He was in a concentration camp, and he had this fantastic notion which I was reminded of when, when you were speaking about how he didn't know if he would wake up tomorrow, if you wouldn't be the one getting into the gas chamber, every morning, something really bad could happen.
Essentially, there's not that much hope, right?
There's nothing really there that you're looking forward to. But what he did was two things.
One was that he said every day I will still speak with someone else, and make them feel better about themselves. And so by doing this, I have some kind of meaning here, because I can still kind of help others have hope here.
I've seen that here during COVID, right? When people were reaching out to their elderly neighbours, by helping them, it actually gave them meaning that someone needs me
But also wanting to write this book when you would come out of the camps. And so he had this duality of meaning, duality of purpose in the day to day there was something that was meaningful, but also there was still this broader, meaningful idea of what could be for the book.
I want to write a book over the next three years, and I have this kind of sense of direction. Now, every incident every encounter with people, I can try to create meaningful accidents.
I'm a technology entrepreneur, but recently started reading into the philosophy of science, but what I'm really excited about is playing the piano.
And so this is giving me three potential hooks where you could be like, ‘Oh, my God touchscreens’ or ‘I just learned how to piano Martinez’. The hook strategy, is you're seeding dots that others could connect for you so so you allow meaningful accidents to arise.
To your point, we can also take situations that are there, and you reframe every situation away from something that is bad, and that could be threatening to something positive in there. That's how one of my companies came out of the financial crises. These dire moments, a lot of times become accidents that really lead us towards more meaningful things.
Isn't it interesting, because I would never have been the greatest person for sitting in an office. I'd always find myself in a coffee shop at my laptop. And I love watching the world go by I love kind of studying people and trying to figure out what's happening in their lives.
I'm Irish. So we talk to everyone
When I moved to Canada first, I sent an email to a Professor in a university who was one of the world leaders in the whole area of sports psychology. I was actually thinking about athlete transition before it became fashionable to talk about.
I sent him an email, he never ever thought I'd get a reply. But he replied, and then we set up a call to chat, he agreed that I was coming from an angle that he hadn't heard before.
So he invited me over to have a conversation and all of a sudden sitting in a room with a guy who worked with some of the best athletes in the world. And suddenly, opportunities were happening.
Canada is an amazing country because it's a lot easier to get access to say the CEO of a major company.
You can send them an email and I'm in town. I don't really know the environment. Would you mind joining me for a coffee and help me kind of navigate the environment.
So much change could happen by somebody just having a conversation or reaching out to somebody, there's an opportunity in every interaction you have in life.
Absolutely. And one of the things that our work shows is there's up to 50% of inventions emerge serendipitously. They emerge out of exactly those kind of moments of looking at the world, seeing something in the moment and then doing something with it.
I think you're completely right. What you said earlier about how you were, you were essentially planting solidarity bombs, right?
By sending emails to people, to people you admire, but speculative, right? You don't necessarily assume that they will get back. But if you do that a couple of times with a couple of people, likelihood is that someone will say ‘hey, this is great, let's do that.’
A lot of my students had their careers fall through, the internships fall through due to COVID. One of the things we've been doing with them over the last month is to send speculative emails or use LinkedIn to connect to secondary contacts. So you can contact people you really admire and just develop a relationship with quite a few people across different industries have conversations, and in a way, put yourself on the radar.
Even if it's a bit speculative, and a numbers game a lot of times if you have 20, people you really admire and you send like 20 messages that are super kind and say, I admire you, you do wonderful work, I'd love chat, at some point, it's very likely that two or three of them say yes.
If you take that kind of reframing into companies, then you realize you don't have to necessarily kind of shut down a bank branch because you have ATMs and you don't need a cashier. You can say the cashier could be a financial trainer and the bank could be a financial training centre. And the point being that we can reframe those kinds of situations to make a lot of interesting things happen.
I just think that what you're talking about right now, there's a really lovely synergy there.
There are messages there for managers around this idea. If you were going to sit down with a team of senior leaders in an organization, and particularly off the back of what's going on with a pandemic. How would you deliver a message to leaders in an organization about engaging their people using the principles of serendipity to improve their lives and improve the connection, and particularly improving the kind of the teamwork mentality?
I would focus on three things that I've seen work in organizations I work with.
The first one is how do we develop a culture of psychological safety?
In companies when things go wrong, when things don't work, we try to hide them away, right, we try to say that never happened. Because we don't want to be the loser who messed something up. And actually, that's the thing where we learn the most, from those kinds of moments of experimentation or moments of things that didn't work.
And so the project postmortem, is really all about saying, when something doesn't work, take it and present it to project managers from other divisions and say what you learn from it, it's not about celebrating failure, quite the opposite. It's about celebrating the learning from what didn't work.
The second one, which I think is super important, which is this idea that everyone is responsible for innovation, not just the guys in the research and development department or innovation department.
Innovation can happen because people in meetings say, you know what, let's ask each other what can we do differently with the things we're doing? And these kinds of ideas can come from all different types of sources. Ask questions like What surprised you last week? What could we do differently? What what are things that really let people think about the unexpected things that they could still do?
If we have time that we can talk about the potato washing machine.
And then third, I think what's really, at the core of all of it is to say, how do we role model, the idea that essentially, the unexpected will happen all the time now, and that's fine It's not a loss of control. It's actually a sign of a good culture that you cultivate for anybody.
It's really that idea of role modelling, hey, we have an idea of where we're going, but we don't have it all figured out. Fine, because that's where we can come together and help each other out.
I don't think I can possibly let this conversation go on without going back to the potato washing machine,
It's one of my favorites,
It's actually this Chinese company. They produce washing machines, refrigerators, and so on.
They got calls from farmers telling them, your crappy machine is breaking down.
Why is it breaking down?
Well, we're trying to wash our potatoes, and it just doesn't work.
And so what we usually tell them, don't wash your potatoes in it.
But they did the opposite.
They said, you know what? There's a lot of farmers in China who probably have the same problem. Why don't we build a filter and make it a potato washing machine.
And that's how the potato washing machine emerged as a product.
And that's the same with breweries turning to hand sanitizer for example. You see something the unexpected, and you connect the dots. And that's really what we said earlier, is we can train ourselves in that ability. And we can train our people in that ability to see something in that moment, when you see something unexpected, and to not discard it. But actually giving them an incentive to look out for those things.
I gave a talk the other day to a bunch of performance schools in Britain, I do some consultancy work with the Royal Ballet School in Britain.
We talked about performance anxiety and just general anxiety in relation to what's going on. One of the fundamental fears in human psychology is a loss of control. You haven't lost control, you just have to be creative in how you control what's going on.
How do you give someone a sense of control? How do shift their mindset away from the negative and the anxious to actually there's an opportunity here?
I feel acknowledging the greatness of the situation is important, right?
Let me map out what we can do about it. One of my colleagues here, he always says beautifully, I can't give you certainty, but I can give you clarity. And to me, that's always a big one.
If I would pretend that I know what happens in three months, I would be lying to you. But what I can do is I can give you clarity about where we are in the process, where we want to go as a kind of North star.
Then we have to figure it out along the way. But let me, role model, that we are trying our best here.
How do I bring people to the table or virtual table?
Everyone now needs to chip in terms of come up with new ideas and new things.
What's shifting at the moment in situations like COVID, is that some innovations are not necessarily a survival thing.
But then if you think about a brewery starts producing hand sanitiser that is necessary based serendipity, there is no other way. Otherwise, they go bankrupt.
When you look at serendipity more closely, a lot of times it comes out of crisis, out of bad luck, out of things that are really, really messed up. But then when we take the long view, we realize, wow, like if we reframe a situation, then actually there might still be a way out.
So interesting. random question for you. One thing I've noticed with a lot of people I've worked with, who have achieved great things in their career, whether it's sports or business, is they generally have a why there's a reason why they do things. There's something that motivates what would you say is your why, what is the thing that keeps you ticking over?
It's interesting, because as an eternal questioner, I'm asking myself that question constantly.
It started out with building platforms, such as communities, and then companies, and then research and content.
I've been doing a 30 Minute Journal where I write down the sense of direction that I have for myself. What is the core your curiosity? A colleague of mine at Harvard does this wonderful research around focusing too much on passion, and thinking that you have to figure out your passion is actually leading you away from setting things in motion. You've got to put things in motion without knowing what exactly the passion is, or what exactly the purposes
There's a myth often peddled that if you work hard enough, you'll be successful, which isn't true.
It is true that if you don't work hard, you won't be successful. But it isn't about working hard. It's about working smart. And while you're talking about data, when you're talking about sending out hooks, it's working smart. Is there one piece of advice you've received over your life that you would say, is something that you go back to over and over again?
I think when you come from Germany, or other countries where you take institutions for granted. I've always found fascinating is this idea that a lot of things are socially constructed, and which means that we can reconstruct them, like a lot of processes, a lot of companies a lot of other things.
I feel having too much respect for people who seem to be in positions of authority because maybe they just fell into those positions, a lot of times, and then theycame up with some kind of rules and procedures. But, do they make sense or not?
It made sense to them at that time, but it doesn't mean that they're in stone. It's really kind of that idea of that, that a lot of things in life are malleable. But also, more importantly, that just because something at this point didn't work, doesn't mean it won't work later. Because again, it might work in another context or with other people or other things.
By being creative you can create a lot of interesting realities because it's embeddingthe idea that every situation is changeable.
People assume that because you speak so well about something that it's almost like you're bulletproof, that you're not prone to the challenges that other people face.
When you talk about a serendipity mindset, and you talk aboutinfluencing your future outcomes... it's not easy.
Have you learned anything that's made you extra resilient, and, and more capable of channeling your mind back into serendipity?
That's a great question.
I feel and I don't think I have an answer that does real justice.
I think in my life, it's been two things.
One is, how do you overcome the imposter syndrome? So how do you overcome this idea that you're never really ready, you're potentially taking things on that are bigger than you could ever deliver?
I've always had this kind of weird thing in my head where on one hand, I, fortunately, grew up with parents who made me feel that I can potentially do everything,
And then the whole risk aversion, where it's about figuring out like how to overcome the kind of inner imposter syndrome in that regard.
I've been thinking a lot about how tobe really passionate about something like say building a business but also not to be too reliant on it in terms of identity because you know, I remember the times when one of the ventureS I was building almost bankrupt.
My identity was essentially my professional identity. And so I feel like, my key learning there was to never again, define myself through only that one thing.
Absolutely brilliant, a great place to leave it, man. I really, really appreciate you taking the time. And being so generous with your time. Thanks so much.
It was wonderful to meet you. And looking forward to continuing the conversation. Thank you.