Dr Christian Busch has had a lucky life. He narrowly escaped a catastrophic car accident at the age of 18. The car was wrecked but he walked away without a scratch. It was just the wake-up call he needed. “I turned my life around. Before that I’d been a reckless teenager who lived in the moment, having fun. The accident instilled a sense of urgency to try to find meaning.”
Luck continued to play a positive role in his life. An accidental coffee spillage in Starbucks led to romance and though the person in question is no longer his girlfriend they are still close. In his work as an entrepreneur, researcher and community-builder, he co-founded several social enterprises and teaches at both New York University and the London School of Economics – enjoying plenty of lucky breaks along the way. But Busch noticed that he wasn’t the only “lucky” one among his friends and colleagues. In fact, many of the most successful and happiest people he encountered also seemed to be on a permanent lucky streak.
It wasn’t so much that they were forever winning the lottery or escaping high-speed accidents, more that they seemed to have an eye for the main chance and making the most of the unexpected. In other words, they made their own luck. It’s this skill that Dr Busch explores in his new book. “Serendipity is smart, active luck,” he says. “It’s when you see something in the unexpected and connect the dots. It’s different from blind luck, which you can’t really influence.”
The way Busch sees it, since so much of our lives are influenced by the unplanned and the unexpected, it makes sense to capitalise on these moments.
“Unforeseen events, chance meetings and bizarre coincidences aren’t just minor distractions or specks of grit in our well-oiled lives,” he explains. “The unexpected is often the critical factor – it’s often the force that makes the greatest difference in our lives.”
Even in the rigorous world of scientific research, the power of the unexpected is often at play. “Studies suggest that around 50% of major scientific breakthroughs emerge as the result of accidents or coincidences.”
We wouldn’t, for example, have antibiotics if one of Alexander Fleming’s Petri dishes hadn’t accidentally become contaminated and grown a mould that led to the discovery of penicillin.
Another scientist might have cursed and thrown the “ruined” Petri dish in the bin, but Fleming’s curiosity, his “serendipity mindset”, meant it sparked one of the most important medical breakthroughs in history.
Similarly, Viagra, Post-it notes, X-rays, nylon, Velcro, rubber and microwave ovens were all the result, to some extent, of lucky accidents.
And many of the world’s most successful people credit serendipity for a large part of their success. Warren Buffet, Richard Branson, Oprah Winfrey and Arianna Huffington all believe they were lucky.
While these naturally curious people might possess this “serendipity mindset”, any one of us can consciously cultivate it, says Busch.
The first step is simply to build an awareness of the unexpected. “The idea is to see meaning in the unexpected, rather than see it as something anxiety-provoking,” says Busch.
This might not be something that comes easily, especially if you’re one of life’s meticulous planners, like Busch himself.
“I’m a German who is used to planning,” he says. “Everything that is unexpected is anxiety-provoking but it helps to reframe it into, ‘Oh that doesn’t need to be a threat’’ There can be something beautiful in the unexpected, even if it doesn’t feel like it in the moment. If we can attune ourselves to the idea that the unexpected can be our ally, we can turn it into something if we connect the dots.”
Of course it’s thrilling when discoveries are sparked in the moment, rather than through laboured planning
but what does he mean by “connecting the dots”? “That’s when apparently unconnected events come together in front of you to form a new pattern. Crucially, the insight, the innovation, or new solution to the problem is not what was expected,” says Busch.
It helps if you have laid some groundwork. “Cultivating serendipity is first and foremost about looking at the world with open eyes and seeing opportunities others don’t. It’s not just about being in the right place at the right time and having something happen to us (blind luck), but rather a process in which we can be actively involved.”
Busch gives the example of entrepreneur and blogger Nathaniel Whittemore, stranded unexpectedly in London, in April 2010, after an erupting Finnish volcano grounded thousands of flights with an ash cloud. While many of us might have done a spot of sightseeing, Whittemore realised he wasn’t the only social entrepreneur stuck in London after the Skoll World forum on Social Entrepreneurship – London was chock-full of exceptional people stranded and twiddling their thumbs. Within 36 hours Whittemore had organised the TEDxVolcano conference, with 200 attendees, world-class speakers, including eBay’s first president Jeff Skoll, and a livestream watched by 10,000 people.
If you’re savvy about it, you can even seed opportunities for serendipity, for example, by giving people you meet a “hook” or opening.
“There’s always that dreaded question: ‘What do you do’,” says Busch. “You can say: ‘I’m a journalist, but recently I started reading about philosophy, and what I’m really interested in is exploring science.’ This is something the educational entrepreneur Oli Barrett does. He’s given you three potential ‘hooks’. He’s seeding potential dots so that you can connect them. You could respond, ‘Oh what a coincidence, I just started reading this book on philosophy and I want to set up a book club.’”
To cultivate a serendipity mindset, you need to let go of planning everything. Far more useful is a good general sense of direction, says Busch. Guiding values allow you to capitalise on chance circumstances, whereas a rigid plan leaves little room for manoeuvre. “In my teaching and thesis supervision, many students come to me and say: ‘I know exactly what I want to do.’ But potential high achievers more often say: ‘I have read up on this widely and become inspired, but I’m not really sure yet which specific perspective I should pick. Can we talk about this?’ The exceptional student tends to allow for a broader field.”
Even crises can yield serendipity gold.
“With Covid, for example, the brewers here (in Germany) who usually sell alcohol to restaurants couldn’t because they were all closed, but they said: ‘OK, so we have alcohol, why don’t we make hand sanitiser?’”
And some companies are using their online community platforms to simulate “water cooler” encounters by randomly pairing employees for conversations. “It’s like social roulette. They’ll set a question, like: ‘What’s mostly on your mind?’”
When I ask Busch about his favourite example of serendipity, he says it’s ordinary day-to-day encounters
– sliding-doors moments, which have the power to flip your life, but so often pass us by, that he finds most intriguing. The “what ifs?
” “For example if you go into a coffee shop and have erratic hand movements like me, you can strike up a lot of conversations with the person next to you. Or you might spill the coffee and not follow up, so we miss it. That’s one of the things I’m most fascinated by – how often we miss serendipity. How often do you feel a connection and not do anything about it?”
When Busch gave his first draft of the book to his publisher, they asked him to add more personal stories. Love stories specifically. “I said I’m 35 and single, maybe I’m not the best person. And then I met my ex-girlfriend straight after and asked her: ‘Do you know of any serendipitous love stories?’ and she said: ‘Yes, ours. We’re not together, but we put each other on this beautiful trajectory in life and we’re an amazing emotional support for each other.’ It gave me a different view of what constitutes success.”
In Covid times coffee-shop love stories are off the agenda. So what does he see as a viable alternative?
“Grocery stores could work. Everybody still needs to go, and I’ve bumped into a number of people there when dropping something.”
Boozy poached pear trifle by Ravneet Gill | Christmas food and drink
Christmas is for decadent food and enjoying simple traditions, like watching classic films, catching up with family and playing games. When you have a million other things to do, putting together a trifle is such an easy option. I mean, who doesn’t like a bowl of custard, cream and fruit? The best thing is you can adjust and adapt to suit your taste, no booze? Less cream? Different fruit? Totally fine!
Makes enough for 1 x large trifle for 8, or individual glasses
For the trifle custard
double cream 850ml
vanilla extract 1 tsp
egg yolks 3
whole eggs 3
caster sugar 125g
For the poached pears
pears 4 large, peeled
caster sugar 150g
star anise 1
cinnamon 1 stick
sponge fingers 1 pack (200g)
sherry to your taste
double cream 500ml
caster sugar 20g
flaked almonds 20g, roasted
Begin by making the custard so it has enough time to chill. Gently warm the cream and vanilla until it begins to steam. Remove from the heat. Whisk the yolks, whole eggs and sugar together. Pour over the warmed cream and whisk. Pour the combined mixture into a large bowl, and sit it on a saucepan of gently simmering water on the stove, making sure it doesn’t directly touch the water. Stir with a whisk frequently until thickened. Transfer to a container and allow to cool completely before placing in the fridge.
Place the pears, sugar, water and aromatics in a large pan making sure the water is covering the pears. If not, top it up. Place a circular piece of parchment directly on the surface of the water to keep the pears submerged. Bring to a gentle simmer until the pears are cooked, around 25-30 minutes, until a skewer placed in slides straight out. Allow to cool before cutting – slice the pears into strips, removing the core, or dice up, depending on how chunky you want the fruit. Keep the liquid to poach more pears.
To assemble, place the sponge fingers into the bottom of the chosen dish. Drizzle over the sherry, being as generous as you like – but not TOO much or it will be too wet. Place the cooled sliced pears on top. Spoon over the cold custard. Gently whip the cream and sugar to soft peaks and top the custard. Finish with a sprinkling of roasted flaked almonds. Serve immediately or keep in the fridge for 2 days.
Ravneet Gill is a pastry chef and the founder of Countertalk
Nigel Slater’s recipe for pappardelle, mushrooms and harissa | Food
Put a deep pan of water on to boil. As it boils, salt generously then lower in 150g of pappardelle and cook for 8 minutes.
Thinly slice 300g of chestnut mushrooms. Warm 6 tbsp of olive oil in a large frying pan, then add the mushrooms. Let them fry for 4 to 5 minutes until they start to toast, then add 2 very finely mashed cloves of garlic. Thinly slice 4 spring onions. Let the garlic and mushrooms cook for 1 minute or until the garlic is fragrant, then add the spring onions and continue cooking for another couple of minutes until soft. Stir in 3 tbsp of harissa paste.
Lightly drain the pappardelle, toss with the mushrooms and serve. Grate a little parmesan over at the table. Serves 2
Mushrooms drink an amazing amount of oil. Be prepared to add a little more as they fry. It is important to get them to the right colour – a deep, toasty brown – before you add the mashed garlic.
This is the sort of recipe that can take a bit of tinkering. Add some crumbled sausage to the pan before you add the mushrooms or perhaps a handful of chopped streaky bacon.
Follow Nigel on Twitter @NigelSlater
My stunning wife makes no effort with our sex life – and I’m losing all interest | Life and style
My wife and I have been married for several years. Over the past six months, I have felt my overall sexual attraction to her diminishing to the point that, even though she is absolutely stunning (she could be a model, which I am reminded of by strangers almost every time we go out together), I no longer find myself sexually attracted to her at all. At the start of our relationship, the sex was OK and we were very sexually active for the first two years. I have explained to her that she lacks passion, no matter how much energy I bring. She rarely initiates sex, and when she does, she simply says: “We should have sex tonight,” which is a turn-off. In our last conversation, she said she is just shy. After several conversations, she said she understood what she needed to do and would work on it, but shortly afterwards she asked for sex outright without any real effort with mood or energy, so I just didn’t feel up to it and turned her down again. Two months on, she has settled back into just avoiding it. She is a lovely, caring woman, but my patience has worn thin, which sucks in such a young marriage. I don’t know what to do.
When a person feels judged – especially as frequently as you have described – they can lose confidence and withdraw. As a rule, positive reinforcement is the best way to teach a person. In your situation, that would mean praising and rewarding even small achievements and never again finding fault. I suspect she is feeling confused – especially if you have not been sufficiently specific with her about what you like. It is not enough to complain: “You never initiate sex!” Instead you could, say, mention a video you once saw, where a woman unexpectedly walked through the living room wearing “X” or “Y”, then invited a man to follow her upstairs – and ask her to consider doing something similar. Your wife cannot read your mind, and I believe she does not really understand how to be seductive the way you would like. So, she may need very specific requests such as: “Would you mind doing this, saying this, wearing this?” If she addresses any of your requests in even small ways, be sure to praise and reward her amply. Eventually she will regain confidence. But in terms of her own libido, it is up to you to kindly and non-judgmentally encourage her to share her own interests and tastes with you. This might be uncomfortable for her, so do not push – again, praise her and act on anything she does reveal. Your job is to discover how she likes to be pleasured – that is the best way to fix this.
Pamela Stephenson Connolly is a US-based psychotherapist who specialises in treating sexual disorders.
If you would like advice from Pamela on sexual matters, send us a brief description of your concerns to [email protected] (please don’t send attachments). Submissions are subject to our terms and conditions: see gu.com/letters-terms.
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