Op-Ed: Leave Room for Serendipity

Be open to it, it just might help you get the creative juices flowing

Geoffrey Orsak

 Geoffrey C. Orsak

Sometimes we are just too practical for our own good. Maybe it’s our technical training that convinces engineers we really can control human variables, carefully planning nearly every aspect of our professional and personal lives.

But I have started to worry that we are becoming too programmed. We are less open to serendipity than we used to be, and we just might be missing out on a time-tested approach to invention. History is replete with examples of beakers accidentally spilling on the floor and the next thing you know, some scientist is stumbling onto Flubber.

The invention of the microwave oven is legendary: Percy LeBaron Spencer discovered that the chocolate bar packed in his clothing for a snack melted as he was testing technology for a new radar system. The next thing you know, we have a 750-lb prototype for the greatest innovation in cooking since fire.

How does one go looking for serendipity? You don’t — but you have to be in a place where it can find you. My approach is simple: Pick a day, pick a big hairy challenge, pick a ridiculously tight deadline and go for it. Stay with me here: If the challenge is big enough, I admit you are going to need some real luck to make it all work out.

 Kennedy Podium

 Photo from the stage at TEDxSMU

Here’s a recent example: I was organizing an important conference wrapped around the challenge,” What will change everything.” I wanted an object — something people could really hang their imaginations on — displayed on the stage to capture the power of how a single idea can change the world. With just days until the conference, it hits me: Why not get the podium used by President John F. Kennedy to give his landmark “we go to the moon because it is hard” speech?

Big, hairy, audacious goal? Check. Crazy deadline? Check. What’s it going to take? Hard work and luck.

Let me rip through the story. I have no idea where to find this national treasure, however, I am meeting with Anousheh Ansari later that day. You’ve heard of Anousheh — the first female space tourist, and it’s her family behind the Ansari X-Prize. Can she help? Hmmm. Maybe.

The next day I get an e-mail from the head curator of the Fort Worth Museum of Science who just happens to owe a favor to Anousheh. His good friend is the curator at Space Center Houston, which apparently houses the podium in its archives.

I get him on the phone and he tells me that this national treasure has never been out on loan. But then a crack of daylight emerges — he tells me that if it was to be loaned, it would take at least a $1 million insurance policy. He probably thinks this will shake me loose.

Twenty-four hours later I am faxing the policy to the museum. The art movers leave that morning for Houston. This picture is taken the following day, from the edge of the stage at the conference. Luck? Innovative approach? Positive thinking? Serendipity? Yes.

Geoffrey C. Orsak is dean of the Southern Methodist University Lyle School of Engineering. He can be reached at dean@lyle.smu.edu .