Last Friday I attended my wife's staff holiday party for the Everson Museum of Art. At one point there was a brief lull in the conversation and a staff member I hardly knew asked me casually for some advice on buying a Christmas present for a family member.
She is perplexed and the pressure is mounting since Christmas is one week away. She asked me for an idea...she asked if I knew of an "it" gift. She went on to explain that it is her family's tradition that everyone buy a single gift that any member of the family would enjoy and/or appreciate. Then, in White Elephant style, they open and trade until all are left with something nice.
Of course my nature as a learning professional was to avoid generating a solution until I understood the details of the problem (in my profession this is a blessing...at a Christmas party ...its a curse). I immediately began a litany of questions...a needs analysis to determine who the family members were, how many, ages, gender, past history of gift types, etc...
In that moment though I had a flash. I recently joined Jane Bozarth's sponsored book club on HootCourse; #lrnbkpull, where we are reading The Power of Pull by John Seely Brown. We have been talking much about serendipity and serendipitous learning as of late.
In the book, Brown speaks of serendipity as "the chance encounter with someone or something that we did not even now existed, much less had value, but that proves to be extraordinarily relevant and helpful once we find out about it."
I though about this and I thought about my own approach to gift buying. You see I'm not all that calculated. I can't just sit down and ponder the person, their wants, needs, likes, etc and rationalize a great gift. No, my approach has always been haphazard. Instead of surrounding myself with thoughts of the person ...I surround myself with potential gifts; I go to a particular type of store, like Marshalls or TJ Maxx. If you haven't been to one of these department stores, you've been somewhere like it. It's basically the Island of Misfit Toys. A collection of overstock from larger band name stores, clothing with minor flaws, knick-knacks, toys, shoes, and home appliances and decor all packed into a rectangular warehouse like building.
It may not be organized, upscale or pretty, but it is rich with ideas. I choose to wander among the different isles completely immersed in the material. It probably sounds inefficient or frustrating to some, but what it does for me is inspire. My mind races as I scan various items - each having something to offer. I watch and overhear people talking about purchases and who they are for and why. I ask questions of the staff, and with each answer more ideas and potential are revealed... until Boom! it hits me...and the idea is there.
In The Power of Pull, the authors write that meeting new people and finding new ideas can be fun but attraction and the serendipity that arises from it takes on increasing value as we look to the edges of our interest areas and increase the probability of serendipitous encounters at the most relevant times.
So I told the stressed staff member of my approach and that she should head to Marshalls tomorrow and wander. Even if she didn't purchase there, she may find inspiration. She was surprised and yet seemed relieved to have a new direction. For her this was the relevant time, it was the 11th hour for holiday shopping...Marshalls to someone of her status was definitely the edge; an area she hadn't really explored. But she made herself open that night and experienced the serendipitous. She had a chance encounter with me, a performance specialist, a person/profession definitely on the edges of her interest areas. This encounter led to an idea/approach that never crossed her mind previously.
#lrnbkpull member, Bill Cush (@billcush) tweeted it best recently: "Serendipity requires being "out there" constantly, in search of new ideas w/ no immediate results..then boom!"
So, are you constantly out there? moving away from your center, your safer area, to meet the people, ideas on the edges? If not, do you really expect innovation and inspiration? For as Brown states, "You can position yourself for serendipity."