Thought Leadership

The Magic of Serendipity in an Age of Efficiency

Wolff Olins’s Milan Kendall Shah on the importance of embracing spontaneity

Milan Kendall Shah

Senior Strategist, Wolff Olins

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In 1831, British explorers set sail on HMS Beagle, intending to survey the coasts of South America. They invited a young Charles Darwin to join, whose degree in natural history would bring credibility to the mission and revitalise government interest in science.

Darwin, planning to become a priest, saw it as an exciting and generous opportunity to see new parts of the world. He never imagined that it would lead him to the theory of natural selection, arguably one of the most important scientific concepts of all time.

This story shines a light on the often overlooked magic of serendipity; finding something valuable or pleasant when you’re looking for something else entirely. It’s the source of countless scientific discoveries, business successes and fruitful personal relationships.

But in a world that celebrates efficiency - where we obsess over optimisation and view any friction as unnecessary waste - it’s easy to forget that many great outcomes happen out of the blue. In fact, this culture of efficiency poses a major challenge to serendipity.

But in a world that celebrates efficiency - where we obsess over optimisation and view any friction as unnecessary waste - it’s easy to forget that many great outcomes happen out of the blue

Milan Kendall Shah, Senior Strategist at Wolff Olins

So, why is this the case? What do we stand to gain from opening ourselves up to the unforeseen? And how can brands help people to embrace the unknown, against a tide of increased efficiency and personalisation?

A magical phenomenon under threat

The first main threat to serendipity is our collective obsession with optimising time. Our working lives are planned meticulously by 30-minute slots, either in a meeting or using protected time for ‘focused work’. In our personal lives, the vast quantities of information, media and activities to choose from make us feel we should always be doing or consuming something.

A trip on the London underground reinforces this; how unusual it is to see someone simply looking into space. Our propensity to be constantly engaged with what’s in front of us ultimately prevents us from looking up and discovering the world around us.

The second key threat to serendipity is technology, particularly in the space of algorithms and logistics. The savviness of services that reveal exactly what we’re likely to want, and those that deliver our favourite items to us at ever-faster speeds, ultimately incentivise us to stay within our comfort zones.

Our propensity to be constantly engaged with what’s in front of us ultimately prevents us from looking up and discovering the world around us.

Milan Kendall Shah, Senior Strategist at Wolff Olins

This is the case in entertainment, shopping, social media and food delivery. Look no further than Netflix’s ability to offer exactly what you’re likely to enjoy from its bank of 2.2 million minutes of content, and Getir’s ability to deliver your preferred groceries to the comfort of your sofa.

The outcome of this is that we see no new options or possibilities that diverge from historic choices and habits. Simply put, serendipity is placed out of reach.

The real value of serendipity

Of course, it’s a privilege to be able to access such efficient and hyper-personalised services. It also seems to be incredibly useful - experiences tailored directly to our preferences guarantee enjoyment and minimise search time.

So, why is serendipity still worth fighting for?

Firstly, opening yourself up to the unknown helps hugely with personal development. Introspection alone is rarely enough to figure out who you are. Putting yourself out there and trying new things is vital for surfacing new interests, honing passions and shaping your character for the better. As Professor Herminia Ibarra puts it, ‘we learn who we are in practice, not in theory’.

Secondly, a range of experiences is crucial for problem-solving. The wider (and deeper) your reference-base, the more likely you are to make connections and use perspectives that help solve problems in creative ways. This principle is at work in the notion of ‘cross-fertilisation’, where experience or knowledge from one domain can provide valuable insight for another.

When asked about the need to make air travel more sustainable, Sir Tim Clark, President of Emirates airline, recently said that “we would have a better chance of understanding where we need to go if we looked beyond aviation.”

Thirdly, embracing serendipity is great for our mental health. From an evolutionary perspective, we’re designed to move, explore, interact and experiment - new and unexpected experiences present potential rewards (food, shelter etc.) that help us survive. This is mirrored in brain activity too, with studies showing close links between novelty and dopamine: a chemical that boosts motivation.

Opening up to the unknown

Planned serendipity seems like a contradiction. But can we create the conditions that increase our odds of experiencing it?

Moments of pause allow our mind to wander - helping unconscious processes to spark creative thinking

Milan Kendall Shah, Senior Strategist at Wolff Olins

Some brands have done well to provide us with new tools to embrace the unknown, against the tide of increased efficiency and personalisation.

Skyscanner Everywhere Search provides travel inspiration when searching for flights without a set destination in mind. HelloFresh, the recipe box delivery service, includes the option of sending ingredients for random meals from a wide selection of cuisines, opening your eyes and palette to new types of food. Even Netflix has started to build randomness into their experience; introducing the ‘Play Something’ feature that plays a TV show or movie you haven't watched before.

In the quest to make the most of every spare minute, it’s also valuable to rethink the way we view time in the first place. Our minutes shouldn’t just be a resource for absorbing more information, but also a chance for existing information to consolidate. Moments of pause allow our mind to wander - helping unconscious processes to spark creative thinking, especially when complemented by the beauty of a great view and the buzz of a spontaneous conversation.

And why not make your habits more conducive to serendipity? Choose to walk home rather than get the bus. Run in the morning rather than the evening. See a friend you wouldn’t usually meet up with. Watch a film from a genre you don’t know much about. Wear an item of clothing you’ve been neglecting. Try that instrument you’ve been wanting to play. Recreate that meal you loved on your travels.

These choices might be non-eventful. But at least they’ll change the rhythm of your day-to-day life. And at best, deviating from the norm could lead to something truly special.

Guest Author

Milan Kendall Shah

Senior Strategist, Wolff Olins

About

Milan is a Senior Strategist at global brand consultancy Wolff Olins. He has experience across the communications function, from insights & innovation, to lobbying and branding. At Wolff Olins, he’s honed his craft on work that includes: redefining what it means to work in insurance (AXA), instilling new purpose in telco (Telia), translating brand equity from Africa to the US (BroadReach), injecting humanity into pharma (GSK) and helping shape the future of mobility (XPENG). He also mentors young talent trying to get into the industry and serves as a regular guest speaker on Westminster Business School’s Master’s degree in Marketing Management.

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