Serendipity doesn’t equate to luck, but it can be considered smart luck, and this is something Dr. Christian Busch explains to us today. Christian is a renowned author, professor, researcher, and co-founder of Leaders on Purpose and Sandbox Network, two well-known communities for impact-driven leaders. As an authority in purpose-driven leadership and impact entrepreneurship, Christian shares his insights on serendipity, finding the meaning of life, and how anyone, including entrepreneurs, can leverage their knowledge and serendipity to make an even bigger impact in this world.
The main focus of this episode is Christian’s book, The Serendipity Mindset, which offers practical advice for entrepreneurs and changemakers to use science and serendipity to change the way they live and see the world, and it’s definitely worth a read. It was a great conversation with Christian, and he asked thought-provoking questions and gave helpful tips that may guide you on your entrepreneurial journey or simply in your journey through life. You won’t want to miss this episode.
Maiko Schaffrath 00:00
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You are listening to Impact Hustlers, and I am your host, Maiko Schaffrath. I have made it my mission to inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs to solve some of the world's biggest social and environmental problems.
And for this reason, I am speaking to some of the best entrepreneurs out there who are solving problems such as food waste, climate change, poverty, and homelessness. My goal is that Impact Hustlers will inspire you, either by starting an impact business yourself, by joining the team of one, or by taking a small step, whatever that may be, towards being part of the solution to the world's biggest problems.
In today's episode, I speak to Dr. Christian Busch, renowned author, researcher, and an authority on impact driven-entrepreneurship. Christian is the director of the Global Economy Program at New York University, where he teaches purpose-driven leadership and impact entrepreneurship.
He's also a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and the co-founder of Leaders on Purpose and Sandbox Network, two of the most renowned communities really bringing together impact-driven leaders. I'm so passionate to have a fellow community builder join me that's been there and done it way before I even thought about community building. So, really excited to speak about that a little bit.
But today, we will mainly speak about Christian's book that he published in 2020, a book called The Serendipity Mindset. The book shows how entrepreneurs and changemakers can leverage the latest scientific insights on serendipity for their day-to-day work. Very practical advice. I really enjoyed reading it. So, very excited to have you on the show, Christian. Thanks for joining.
Christian Busch 03:05
Thanks so much for having me Maiko, and I'm so glad that you seem to have gone through COVID with lots of smiles and good energy.
Maiko Schaffrath 03:12
Yeah, I did relatively well. I was pretty bad for two days, but that was it, then I recovered very quickly, which was good. So, excited to do this finally. The first thing I want to start with is it feels like you're really a community builder at heart.
You've been a community builder for quite a while as a co-founder of Sandbox Network, Leaders on Purpose as well, and I'd like to cover in the beginning a bit your journey from community builder to academia and researching more about the signs of serendipity. So, give us a bit of an overview of your personal journey.
Christian Busch 03:52
Yeah, absolutely. In a way, meaningful connection is at the core of everything I do, and the reason really being I used to be that kid in high school who was kicked out of high school, had to repeat a year. I probably held the unofficial world record of how many dust bins and trash cans you can knock over on your way to school when you're driving.
And then, one day, I wasn't so lucky anymore and crashed into four parked cars, all cars completely destroyed, including my own. And the policeman who came to the scene, he was like, "Oh, my god, he's still alive."
That idea that I was supposed to be dead, that stuck with me, and I asked myself all these weird questions, "If I would have died, who would have come to my funeral? Who would have actually cared? Was it all worth it?" And at that point, I had only depressing answers.
And so, it took me on this intense search for meaning trying to figure out, what is life all about? If I would die tomorrow, would it have been worth next time? And so, what I realized and actually, I read a book that I highly recommend, especially in times like the one we live in, Victor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning, which is all about the question of, how do we find meaning in crisis?
How do we find meaning in the toughest of circumstances? And when reading that book, what I realized is what I find meaning in is connecting people, connecting ideas, seeing how they fit, and that spark that comes from meaningful connection.
And so, that set me a lot on that route of trying to build communities and companies and then academia, trying to connect those dots together. But, Maiko, what I found fascinating on this journey is that the most purpose-driven inspiring people, they seem to have something in common, which is that they somehow intuitively cultivate serendipity.
They intuitively see a little bit more in unexpected moments, and they connect the dots and then turn that into positive outcomes. And so, I got really fascinated by this question: how can we develop communities, mindsets, and companies that allow us to have more of this unexpected good luck?
Maiko Schaffrath 05:41
For you, what came first? Was it community building and then learning more about serendipity while you were building these communities and learning about it? Or, did you really spend a lot of time learning about serendipity before you said, "Okay, I can now leverage that knowledge to create serendipity," for others and those communities that you've built?
Christian Busch 05:59
Well, it actually serendipitously came out of one of the communities we built. Sandbox Network, which we set up around 2007, 2008, the idea was, how do you bring people together who, in their respective fields, are pushing the boundaries, who are being considered crazy in their field, but mindset-wise, they have so much in common with people in other fields, but they're connected in their own fields?
And so, how do we create a home for those people that they don't feel crazy anymore and feel like, "There's a community for me to make big stuff happen"?
And so, what fascinated me at some point was that you would go to a dinner there of people who have similar values but very different ideas, and you would go to a dinner, and from every corner, every couple of minutes, you would hear something like, "Oh, my God, such a coincidence, such a coincidence, such a coincidence, such a coincidence." What I found fascinating is how, in a way, that was implicitly an accelerator for serendipity.
At some point, we jokingly called it actually a serendipity accelerator without thinking a lot about it. What I found interesting over the years now is that both in my own life, it's become a personal life philosophy and daily practice to have serendipity, and that's what makes life in a way meaningful and joyful, even in times we live in.
But then, also, more and more came out of the research from wherever. I do a lot of work in Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, in India and China, and everywhere, serendipity pops up amongst people. And so, the question was really, is there an underlying theme for that? So, that came serendipitously so first out of the community building.
Maiko Schaffrath 07:35
Amazing. Alright. We haven't actually really covered what serendipity is, and you cover it in the beginning of the book, where you define what serendipity means. So, I'd love for you to cover that a little bit, and especially the relationship to luck, because I think sometimes people confuse both. What is serendipity and how does it relate to luck?
Christian Busch 07:57
What is interesting, because usually, when we think about luck, we think about things that just passively happen to us, so being born into a loving family and stuff like that, we can't really pick, but serendipity is about smart luck.
It's about the luck we create ourselves through our own actions in how we react to the unexpected or how we create the unexpected. It's either making accidents meaningful or creating meaningful accidents.
To give an example, imagine you have erratic hand movements like I do, then you spill a lot of coffee. And so, imagine you spill coffee over someone in a coffee shop, and they look at you slightly annoyedly, but you sense there might be something there. You don't know what it is. You just sense there might be something there. Now, you have two options.
Option number one is you just say, "I'm so sorry," you walk outside, and you think, "Ah, what could have happened had I spoken with the person?" Option number two, you start that conversation, that person turns out to become the love of your life, your co-founder, you name it.
It's the point that our reaction to that unexpected moment, making that accident meaningful, that creates the serendipity, and a lot of times, it takes time.
It's not enough to just bump into the person. You've got to go on different dates. You've got to turn that into the ultimate serendipitous outcome, but the fascinating thing, Maiko, is that once you look at serendipity as a process, that's always the same.
You can look at serendipity stories from around the world. It's always the same process of something unexpected happens, and then individuals do something with it, and that differentiates serendipity gain from serendipity miss like, what do we do with that unexpected moment?
Maiko Schaffrath 09:28
Got it. Give us some examples, especially how this is relevant for entrepreneurs. In the book, you bring a few examples how serendipity has led some to some great things, so give us some examples on how serendipity helps entrepreneurs and some of the best entrepreneurs out there are leveraging serendipity.
Christian Busch 09:51
Well, it's a great question, because if you think about it, up to 50% of innovations, inventions happen serendipitously. In a way, if you want to push the boundaries, like a lot of times, it comes from actually spotting and connecting the dots.
Necessity-based, you saw during the pandemic where breweries realized unexpectedly, "Oh, my god, we can use our alcohol to produce hand sanitizers," so they connected those dots and became hand sanitizer companies, stuff like that where you can turn whole companies around, you can turn products around.
One of my favorite examples here is the potato washing machine, because the potato washing machine shows how much it is about how we approach the world and that we get away from this idea that we have to plan everything exactly out. I grew up in Germany, and the education system, obviously, was always telling me, "Hey, you have to have a plan.
You have to map everything out. You have to know everything," and then you go out in real life, and you're like, "Jesus, nobody told me that there [are] so many things I can't control."
I think what we have a lot of times is this illusion of control, and then we get anxious when we don't have everything under control. And then, what you would see on CVs or- I work a lot with executive teams, where if you're the CEO of a company, and you go into the board room, you usually say, "I planned this, and I did this, and then exactly this happened," even though everyone in this room knows that that is not reality.
Reality usually is more like a squiggle, where you plan something, then you unexpectedly heard about an idea, you build it in, and then it's more like this.
One key purpose of this work is to say, how do we get more honest about that, yes, we need some kind of North Star curiosity, something that guides us a little bit so that we have a certain plan. Let's make a strategy, but then let's make the unexpected part of that strategy.
And so, the potato washing machine is an example of this where a couple of years ago, a company in China called Haier, they produce refrigerators, washing machines, and they received calls from farmers.
The farmers asked them, "Why is your crappy washing machine always breaking down?," and so they asked, "Well, what are you doing with it?" "Well, we're trying to wash our potatoes, and it doesn't seem to work."
So, what we usually do, we would probably say, "Well, let's educate the customer, and let's tell them to not wash their potatoes, and the washing machine is not made for this. It's not part of our marketing plan." They did the opposite. They said, "You know what?
That's unexpected, but there [are] probably a lot of farmers in China and in the world who might have a problem in that department, so why don't we build in a dirt filter and make it a potato washing machine?"
What I'm saying here is, when you have a company, a lot of times, the most interesting things, the most interesting products, client leads, and so on, will come unexpectedly, and if we do simple things.
For example, in the weekly meeting, ask something like, what surprised you last week? Then, we can spot those potential serendipitous moments, and we can then build them into our plan. And instead of looking weak that we didn't plan it, we actually create a corporate culture that makes it possible to have those new things happen.
Maiko Schaffrath 12:40
Got it. And the examples you gave so far, I think they're very much about the mindset, as the book already suggests with the title, but really about the mindset of serendipity to weave it into your daily life. And when you encounter situations that may be looked at as a bad situation, really look at it from a different framing. So, that's one.
The other one I'm interested in is more like, how do you actually engineer serendipity and create more serendipity than what your average life already throws at you? And especially the question around, there's a whole serendipity industry out there on conferences and networking events and social networks and communities, and there's millions of those.
So, as a founder, especially with very restricted time, isn't the answer to go to as many conferences as possible to get more serendipitous moments? How do you avoid that from distracting you?
I guess there [are] loads of questions, but I guess the short question of this is, how can you engineer serendipity, but also maybe in a lean way that doesn't necessarily mean that you're only touring conferences 24/7?
Christian Busch 13:52
Yeah, it's a great question, because I think this is a lot about quality versus quantity a lot of times. I think it depends a little bit where we are in our life cycle.
If you're just starting out, you don't have social capital yet, then by any means, you go to more conferences, because you have to get more exposure, you have to meet more people, you have to put your idea more out there, and so on. And then, the more you become senior, the more selective you are with, "Hey, this community is probably giving me a bit more than this community."
I think what's really interesting is I'm always a big fan of stepping back and saying, "What is really important to me? And what are the meaningful communities that could really be part of my journey at this point?," and then plug into those communities.
And then, I think the question becomes how to plug into them. I'm a big fan of the hook strategy, for example, where the idea is that you're casting a couple of hooks. You put a couple of dots out there where other people can pick them up, and then that's where the unexpected client leads comes from. That's where the unexpected partnership comes from. And so, the hook strategy works like this.
Someone who does that really well is Oli Barrett in London. He's a technology entrepreneur. And if you would ask Oli at a conference, "Hey, what do you do?," the question that puts people into boxes, but everyone asks it, he wouldn't just say, "I'm a technology entrepreneur." He would say something like, "I'm a technology entrepreneur, recently started reading into the philosophy of science, but what I'm really excited about is playing the piano."
And so, what he's doing here is he's giving you three potential hooks, where you could be like, "Oh, my god, such a coincidence. I recently started hosting piano sessions. You should stop by," "Oh, my god, such a coincidence.
My sister is teaching on the philosophy of science. You should give a guest lecture." The point is, I'm a big fan of writing down, what are two or three key themes at the moment? "Do I want to expand into Poland? Do I want to hire five people?," whatever it is, and then seed that into every conversation.
In my case, for example, I'm seeding into every conversation, I want to take that mindset into every school and every organization that has me. And so, I'm seeding that everywhere.
And the more we do that, the more it's amazing, where from the most unexpected places, someone might be like, "Oh, my god, yes. My brother used to work in Poland. I should put you in touch."
Those kinds of things, especially also with the people we know, like in the teams we work with, you can sprinkle it in, and that's where serendipitously, a lot of these things happen, so I think it's those kinds of practices that allow us to have more serendipity.
Maiko Schaffrath 16:10
I love that. I think especially because so often, traditionally speaking, we define ourselves by our past, "I graduated from university X, and my current job title is this," or, "I'm working on this right now."
But yeah, the example you gave with Oli, who is the most networked person in the UK definitely or one of the most, is a really good one, because you're suddenly weaving in things that you typically wouldn't mention, and you may weave in things about your future, where you aspire to be. Super valuable. Thank you.
Obviously, you have a background especially supporting impact-driven founders, changemakers across the world. You talked about the work in Sub-Saharan Africa as well. Do you think there's a particular importance for impact entrepreneurs in terms of serendipity? Is it even more important to them than to others? Or what has been the connection between serendipity and impact for you?
Christian Busch 17:20
I love that question, because to me, one of the biggest mindset shifts happened when I started to work in Kenya and South Africa. That was around 10-ish years ago, and I still remember someone who now has become a very dear friend of mine.
When I arrived, I asked, "What should I never ask you?" Me, the person coming into your context, who assumes that I have a lot of solutions, but I actually probably don't know a lot about your context.
And he said, "Never ask me first what do I need, because that puts me into the role of the victim of the beneficiary of someone who needs your benevolence, versus if you come in and say, 'Hey, what's already here? What can we do together?,' then you can still think about resourcing, you can still think about impact, but we do it on the same level."
To me, that was a real changing factor to say, a lot of times, people who focus on impact focus on things like lower needs, hey, let's give people better nutrition or better education or stuff, important things. But actually, what people really, really want is dignity. They want to feel meaning. They want to feel that their life is worth something.
To give you an example where the link to serendipity comes in, there's an organization I've been working with called Reconstructed Living Labs, and Reconstructed Living Labs, they have a low-cost education model where they come out of the Bridgetown area in the Cape Flats in Cape Town, very rough community.
They came out there and said, "Hey, let's do a very easy methodology where 10 steps to use social media to build your business, 10 steps to create your own thing," whatever it is, very simple education methodologies.
What they do is, because they don't have any resources, they go into other resource-constrained communities, and instead of asking, "What do you need?," they ask, "What's already here and how can we make the best out of it?"
So, then, they look at an old garage, and they see, "Oh, wow, that could be a training center." They look at a former drug dealer, and they say, "Oh, wow, that could be a potential teacher." If we can turn that person around, they will be resourceful. They will have amazing social capital.
And if you can turn them into a teacher, you can turn a community around. And so, what I've seen with this organization and related organizations is people can create their own smart luck, and that actually gives them their dignity.
So, as an impact entrepreneur, instead of going in and saying, "Here's resourcing. Here's this," it's about saying, "How can I enable people to create their own luck?," because that brings them the kind of meaning and that idea that, "Hey, I can create my own luck."
There's a lot of dignity that comes with the idea that you can create your own luck, and I think with a mindset component, there's always the structural inequality component, in terms of saying, people like us, we have access to education networks and everything else. Someone in the Cape Flats in Cape Town does not.
And so, how do we also then work on the structural framework around this, but also realizing that, hey, especially people in this context have a certain level of mindset a lot of times and actually are far more resourceful than many of us.
That model, actually, they've taken that into other contexts. They've taken that, for example, into banks, where they say, instead of just firing people when they don't need the ATM person anymore, the cashier, think about how that could be a financial trainer, and maybe the bank could be a financial training center.
And so, the point being, that shift in thinking comes a lot from those kinds of contexts where, out of necessity, you have to make the best out of what's at hand.
Maiko Schaffrath 20:36
How elitist is serendipity? A lot of opportunities for serendipity [are] behind closed doors. If you attend these conferences, the expensive conferences, or let's say, even if you just live in Silicon Valley, or you live in London, you're in these places where you run into loads of exciting people.
Maybe if you're in a rural area cut off from a lot of international visitors, for example, you may have a little bit less serendipity, or you may only run into locals all the time. Do you feel that's a problem? How accessible is serendipity already?
Christian Busch 21:16
I think it's a huge problem. I think it's a huge problem that our base levels of potential serendipity are very different. Our sitting here in "hotspots" and having communities around where we can just plug in and out, our potential for potential serendipity, even if we have the same mindset as someone in the Cape Flats, is obviously exponentially higher.
That's why I'm such a big fan of thinking about how do we create serendipity spaces for people, especially in less privileged backgrounds?
What I mean with this is, I think a lot of organizations, for example, focus on education. Well, that's great. But if you put a kid from a less privileged background into a school, they still come home and have high stress levels. They still come home and don't have the connection when they need the job now to actually get that job and things like this.
And so, I'm a big fan of really thinking holistically about all these other areas and saying, how can I enable those people to have more luck in their life by for example, okay, if I give you a scholarship for this university or for this school, who are three mentors that I can directly give you so that you have your own community that can help you then lift you up as soon as you need the job, as soon as you need other things?
And so, I think it's, to me, a lot about democratizing the access to potential serendipity by saying, how do we think about helping people in the community especially? That's why I like to focus on community, because at the end of the day, a lot of this is about people. Who are the kinds of people with whom you can connect the dots, who can help you out, who can do things with you, and so on?
So, I think there's a huge component to that. Having said that, Maiko, I think the beautiful thing is, and that's why I love that work, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, in every context, you can see people who have that mindset versus not.
And then, I think at the same time, we want to remove those structural constraints. But I think, hopefully, that work will be part of democratizing that also, especially for people who might not have been used to it, but at the same time, also think more holistically about removing structural barriers for people who might be having very different base levels.
Maiko Schaffrath 23:19
Got it. In the book, also, you speak about the importance of a North Star to help leaders become purpose-driven. So, give us a bit of an outline of what the North Star means and how entrepreneurs and general leaders can implement it.
Christian Busch 23:38
Yeah, well, that mostly came from- we did a couple of studies with CEOs, especially of large companies that try to make them more purpose-driven. CEOs of companies like MasterCard or so who say, "Hey, I want to take a traditional company, and then integrate profit and purpose and somehow understand how we can leverage these capabilities to make a bigger impact."
And so, we sat down with them, and one of the key themes that came out of this was that the most successful CEOs have one thing in common, which is that they are extremely, extremely good at having some sense of direction where they say, "If I'm MasterCard, I want to get 500 million people who were previously unbanked into the financial system now, and here's an approximate strategy."
They have a certain sense of direction, certain North Star of where they're going, and they say, "Okay, this is the strategy to get there, but I'm already telling you now that we will adjust that strategy based on new information coming in."
And so, what they do is they have a sense of direction, but also make the unexpected part of the plan versus the old school leadership is that you essentially just say, "I know exactly what I want to do. I know exactly what's happening," and then as soon as new information comes in, you have to adjust and look weak. To give you an example there, I was so fascinated when COVID happened.
When COVID happened here in the United States, you had two types of governors or people who are running the states. The one type had the old school leadership style of saying, "Hey, here's an exact timeline of when we're closing, when we're opening up again, and then exactly on this date, we will open up," and that's it.
That's the old school leadership style. You try to control everything and try to have an exact timeline for everything. And now, when new information comes in about hotspots or stuff, you either look weak if you adjust the timeline, or you essentially have an incentive to hide the data, versus the new leadership skill type is to say, "Hey, what is our North Star?
Yeah, the North Star is to have good public health and good economic health for the state. Here's an approximate strategy. Funnily enough, the same timeline as the others, but we're already telling you now that based on these North Stars, we will actually adjust the timeline as soon as new information comes in."
Now, when you're adjusting the timeline, when you're adjusting your strategy, you look strong, because you told people from the beginning you would do that. And now, actually, they feel, "Oh, he's a responsible leader. She's a responsible leader.
And so, the long story short here is I think that's the same for running small companies that, at the end of the day, you can pretend that you have it all figured out.
You can pretend that you know exactly everything. But actually, what's much more important is having the North Star, so a sense of where you're going together, so that people feel that sense of belonging, that sense of like, "Oh, yeah, we have something in common, some common purpose," doing a strategy that's related to it, but then also from the beginning saying, "Let's adjust that strategy as we learn more.
If people want to use our washing machine differently, by any means, let's make that part of the plan." And actually, that is real leadership and lets go of this illusion of control.
Maiko Schaffrath 26:33
Hi, it's Maiko here. I want to interrupt this episode briefly to make you aware of two exciting things that are going on here at Impact Hustlers.
First of all, if you are a founder solving social and environmental problems, and you're looking to connect to like-minded founders like yourself, you're looking to learn from some of the most experienced entrepreneurs, experts, and investors in the world, and you want some support and actually fundraising for your startup, we've built the Impact Hustlers Community.
We are now about 100 entrepreneurs and founders, and we're growing every month, with more founders from all over the world joining us, and we're really here to support each other. Our goal is to build the most supportive ecosystem for impact-driven founders. So, if you're a founder, head to impacthustlers.com/community to learn more.
And if you're not a founder, but you want to work for impact-driven companies, we have also recently launched something really exciting for you, and that is the Impact Hustlers Talent Collective.
This is a group of some of the most ambitious and talented individuals in the world that want to use their talent to make a difference in the world and work for some of the most innovative impact-driven companies.
If you're keen to join the Talent Collective, this is all free of charge, obviously. You can submit your application to the Talent Collective on impacthustlers.com/jobs, and what will happen as a result is that companies will start approaching you through our Talent Collective and share job opportunities with you.
We'll also share our Weekly Jobs Update with you where you see relevant jobs in the field of impact, including from all the previous podcast guests, so you will actually see opportunities from companies that have been covered here on the show and also companies that are members of our Impact Hustlers Community.
So, go to impacthustlers.com/jobs If you're looking for a job, or if you're a founder and need some support, go to impacthustlers.com/community. Okay, let's get back to the episode now.
Got it. I can relate to this a lot, because Impact Hustlers' origin story is a little bit serendipitous as well. It basically started just by actually when I first worked at Wayra which is a startup accelerator here in London, my boss challenging me, "You should put yourself out there.
Come on. Do something." First of all, that was a little bit serendipitous around him and me being in the same room at the right time and him having this idea.
So, I started with the podcast, and then through that, really learned the need from entrepreneurs for more community, especially impact-driven entrepreneurs, and then ran into people that were keen to co-organize a summit.
So, if you look back, really, I think most people would really realize how important serendipity is. I recorded an episode with Sir Ronald Cohen who's one of the pioneers in impact investing a while ago, and he didn't call it luck, but I think the concept of luck and serendipity were key in his life as well, really small moments that are completely defining.
I think the exciting bit is where these small moments define entire generations, new technologies, new paths for humanity, and you can look at that in the world of medicine where lots of medicines have just been discovered by accident.
So, quite exciting. Not another question, but it's exciting to see. Do you see there is something that, let's say, politicians, policymakers can do to push society towards more serendipity for good? How can we make sure for entire countries to push more in the direction?
Christian Busch 30:41
Yeah, that's a great question, and I think Maiko, to your earlier point with Ronald Cohen and others, that's the first thing, we've seen the same in those CEO studies, for example, where when people narrate their history, they a lot of times say there was hard work, and there was luck, so very different things.
What's fascinating that is when you reflect with them, at some point, they're like, "Oh, my god, yes, I worked really hard to have more luck." That's to me the fascinating thing, and then your life also. You've been connecting the dots.
I mean, from what I've seen, you're constantly connecting dots, and you're working really hard to connect those dots. You're alert, you're connecting people, you're connecting ideas, and so on. And yes, it's lucky.
That particular moment, that particular outcome is lucky, but you made it more probable that those luck moments would happen. There [are] a lot of experiments, actually, and then I'll answer your question about the government.
But there [are] a lot of experiments how we can very easily have more of this by literally just opening our eyes to it, opening our eyes to how likely the positive, the unexpected is, but we're missing it all the time.
In this one example, and actually everyone who's listening to this, I'd love you to reflect if you consider yourself to be lucky or unlucky. Just as a question, do you consider yourself to be a lucky person or an unlucky person? The reason I'm asking you this is that if you consider yourself to be a lucky person, it is more likely that you will be luckier in the future just because of the way you will look at the world and the way you're spotting opportunities.
To give you an example experiment, there [are] a lot of these kinds of experiments, and this one experiment, they took people who self-identify as very lucky, so people who say, "Good things tend to happen to me," yada, yada, and people who self-identify as very unlucky, so people who say, "Bad things tend to happen to me. I'm always in accidents," and so on, and we all know people on that continuum.
They pick one of each, and they say, "Walk down the street, go into a coffee shop, grab a coffee, sit down, and then we'll have our conversation."
What they don't tell them is that there [are] hidden cameras alongside the street and inside the coffee shop, that there's a £5 note, money in front of the coffee shop door. And inside the coffee shop, there's one empty seat next to this extremely successful businessman who can make big dreams happen.
Now, the lucky person walks down the street, sees the £5 note, picks it up, goes inside the shop, orders the coffee, sits next to the businessman, they have a conversation, exchange business cards, potentially an opportunity coming out of it. We don't know that bit.
The unlucky person walks down the street steps over the £5 note, so doesn't see it, goes inside the shop, orders the coffee, sits next to the businessman, ignores the businessman, that's it.
Now, at the end of the day, they asked both people, "How was your day-to-day?," the lucky person says, "Well, it was amazing. I found money in the street, made a new friend and potentially an opportunity coming out of it." The unlucky person just says, "Well, nothing really happened.
The fascinating thing is, so I find a lot of money in the street, because I expect it to be there, unfortunately, mostly pennies, so it doesn't really change my lifestyle. But, once you start looking for the money on the street, you start seeing it.
Once you take another street to work in the morning, and you look actually at the street, you might see this bookstore where there's this one book and you might think, "Oh, my god, that could be a podcast."
Once you're reading differently with the idea of, "Hey, can I connect some dots here?," you tend to see it more often. Maiko, that's why it gets really exciting also in terms of neuroplasticity. The way we can reframe our brain by really consciously thinking about, how can I connect the dots in different moments? Can I relate this to something and something else? And so, that makes it much more likely.
Now, how do we take that to the macro level of organizations and governments? I feel a lot of this comes to the question, how do we develop serendipity fields for people? How do we develop these kinds of opportunities, spaces where people can help each other connect more dots, bump into each other more often, but in meaningful ways, and so on?
We've done some work with the government, for example, around public spaces, like how do we rethink public spaces in ways so that people have an incentive to talk with each other?
For example, Burning Man has been really good at this where when you go to Burning Man, this thing in the desert, they are very conscious about, where exactly do we put art so that people when they live, for example, in a tent here and in a tent here, in the middle, they would put art so that people who cross from one tent to the other briefly stop in front of the art, and then they have an excuse to talk with someone next to them, because they can say, "Doesn't this look strange?
Why does this have such a big vagina?," these kinds of things where it's a little bit shocking, those kinds of art, for example, and that then sparks conversation.
And so, the long story short here really is that at the end of the day, there [are] a lot of smart ways how we can build in stimuli, in some way or the other, into public spaces that make it more likely that people interact. But also, more broadly, for governments, we can think about, how do we reform the education system?
The education system I was in, I was kicked out, because nobody gave me the opportunity to actually connect more dots. I wanted to connect more dots, but it wasn't possible. So, it's the education system where we can think a lot about, and then more broadly, I think there's a lot about policymaking. When you think about how policy is being made, it's so focused on thinking you know a lot about the world or grant-making.
Those of you in the room who have ever tried to get a grant, it's so focused on the solution, but actually, solutions pivot. They change. And so, if you're forced by a grant to go through with a solution, that can be harmful, versus if it will be more focused on the problem space and saying, "Whatever you come up with within this problem space, we will fund," that actually would be so much more impactful.
So, it's those kinds of things where it's really shifting the mindset away from this centralized "we know everything" approach to, how do we trust local communities and enable them to really work on this and let go of this know-it-all type mindset?
Maiko Schaffrath 36:33
I think especially in the education system, we're still suffering from our past in terms of education systems being designed for the industrial age, where you don't want people to have this mindset. You want them to be reliably executing one task, and that's it. You don't want them to go off the track and do something else. So, I think huge challenges ahead.
I'd love to give the opportunity for anybody in the audience to raise their hand. You have a button at the middle of the screen where you can actually join the live call in, so we'll be able to see you and hear you. Don't be shy with that.
I see Pooja, you already commented a bit. Pooja is one of our community members, a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford, neuroscientist, and just basically starting her company now to get people's behavior changed around climate change, so basically helping people make more sustainable choices based on neuroscience.
Pooja, if you're up for it, join us on stage, if you have any question or just even want to showcase how the role of serendipity for you, feel free to join, or anybody else as well. Feel free to drop a comment in the chat or raise your hand. Pooja, there you are.
No pressure on you. There we go. Hi, Pooja. Thanks for joining us. I think it will take a second until your video is live. There we go. How are you doing? It's in the middle of a night for you, isn't it?
Pooja (Audience) 38:02
Not super late, 10:10pm, nice and symmetrical. I really enjoyed this conversation. Yeah, it was really insightful. I was thinking, again, this is on the side, but I had this strategy that you were mentioning about leaders being less rigid about their plan or strategy and leaving room for serendipity.
That's my traveling approach; have a basic plan, but leave room, and I have had so many amazing experiences precisely because I was open to deviating and yeah, so that really rang a bell.
Well, let's see. I was curious about, what is the role of features like extraversion or optimistic versus pessimistic outlooks on serendipity? Because it seems to me that, I mean, I'm extroverted. I'm more likely to, for example, chat with a stranger, but people who are shy, I feel like that might get in the way.
I'm wondering, would that predict that? How do you overcome that? And also, does that maybe suggest that people who are more extroverted are luckier? Not a deep question, really, but I'm just curious, yeah.
Christian Busch 39:30
No, amazing. Thank you so much for that. What a cool intersection, neuroscience, climate change. I mean, a lot of impact to be had, I guess, at that intersection, so looking forward to continuing that conversation, also learning a lot from you probably around those things. But to your point, two things came up. I loved your point around the traveling.
To your point, whenever we're traveling, then we have a bit more of this beginner's mind, because we're a bit more like, "Oh, let me learn a little bit more about wherever I am now," versus when we're in our day-to-day, we might have more of the functional fixedness, being in our autopilot type mode. I'm actually a big fan of 90-day experiments where the idea is, how can I do something similar that I would be doing on traveling with a new curiosity or new interest?
Let's say you work in a bank, and you always wanted to build up this impact venture, but you never had time, well, how can you make 5% of your time, and then literally take that beginner's mind and plug into different communities and travel, even if it's just virtually?
Pooja, I love that you mentioned travel as this, because I think we can also travel without actually having to be on the road. That's allowing us to also open our mind more towards serendipity in so many different ways and then, of course, traveling itself being super helpful.
To a second point, I think that's a great one, also in terms of, I'm a closeted introvert and the kind of person- I had that conversation recently, and I don't know, Maiko, if you relate to this, but I had that conversation with other community builders.
People always think we're so extroverted, because we host parties, and we host all these things. But then, we're hiding in the restroom, because we have to replenish our energy, and so we're closeted introverts. So, we're closeted introverts, have spikes of extraversion, and then again, we are like, "Okay, let the party go on," and I take myself out of it.
I think deeper psychologically, actually, maybe there's also something that when you host these things, you know you can take yourself out of it without then not being part of it. So, I think also, there's probably deeper emotional things around why introverts are attracted to community building in some way, but I think that's a whole other conversation.
What I found fascinating is in a world that's designed for extroverts, how do you survive as an introvert?
Because yes, to your point, it is more likely, in some ways, to have serendipity, because serendipity a lot of times comes from interaction with others, being that if you think about the most interesting inventions or this conference thing where you bump into someone, something interesting happens, those kinds of things are interactions with others. I think there's two things, though, that give introverts hope.
One is that a lot of serendipity comes from quiet sources, from calm sources, reading a book, seeing that book in the bookstore, thinking that could be a podcast, those kinds of things that are quiet sources.
I've become a really big fan of thinking about, how can introverts leverage extroverts in the sense of, if you, for example, have, in your case, a new cool venture idea, and if you were an introvert and would be going to a dinner party, the first thing being to talk with the host and get the host excited about the idea, because that person will then walk around and talk about the idea.
And so, essentially, it's really about, how do we leverage extroverts to do the work for us that we don't necessarily want to do? In that regard, I've had that with an insurance company last week. The idea was, look, they go to, let's say, university, and they want to sell an insurance to different people, they don't have to go to everyone.
They just have to go through the super nodes, like the people who people ask for advice, or the people who people trust the most. And if you go on them, and then it spreads much better. I guess climate change is a great area for this.
You don't have to convince everyone individually. You just need to find these super nodes, who then go into their own communities and do that much more credibly, anyways, than any of us could. So, I think there's a lot of others. But Pooja, you probably have a lot of thoughts, yeah.
Pooja (Audience) 43:10
I love that you said that, because as Maiko said, I'm building a community, a platform that is consumer-facing, and it's targeting folks who have high levels of climate concern, and which often turns up as anxiety or despair, because most people feel pretty powerless, and how can we empower them to exercise or channel that anxiety into action that is impactful, and yeah.
Part of my go-to market strategy is to identify folks on different social media who are thought leaders and who have a lot of influence in climate conversations and the goal being that network effects that start with these nodes, these super nodes are going to be more powerful.
They are connected to more people who have similar interests and their approval, I think, might be powerful as well, for example, yeah.
I want to clarify. I'm not a neuroscientist. I'm a cognitive scientist, very close. So, neuroscientist, the brain and cognitive science is mind, higher order of reasoning, but I'm very much using my background to try to hack behavior change at scale, yeah.
Christian Busch 44:38
Maiko Schaffrath 44:40
I should notice by now. Sorry, Pooja.
Pooja (Audience) 44:42
It's okay. It's very common mistake. I should also say in the context of this conversation about serendipity, this thing I'm building now, i's evolved a lot in the past six months, but it's something I've been thinking about for about three years.
I had to get to a moment in my personal career life, I lived in the US for almost 15 years, where I could not do the safer thing, where I decided to take the plunge, "You know what? This is it. I'm going to do this thing I wanted to do anyway."
And so, this thing that is so meaningful to me and it was absolutely the right decision, it originated from a place of discomfort, and it seemed like a really bad situation, but I turned it around.
I already know, looking back, I might be grateful that this bad situation happened, because I'm building a life that is very much aligned with my values and much more worthwhile in terms of work. My effort is worth it in this case. So, yeah, I'm totally with you, and it's helpful to hear what you're saying today, because it reminds me that there's always that silver lining and that, yeah, looking for opportunities, yeah.
Christian Busch 46:04
It reminds me a lot of Victor Frankl's theme around, do you let the situation define you, or do you try to define the situation? In terms of this whole idea that, yes, we cannot always pick the situation we're in, but we can always pick our response to it.
When looking back on life, I think for most people, there will be some inflection points, like being in car accidents, having faced cancer, breakups and love, things like this, where in the moment, and if it's terminal, of course, this is something you can't turn around, but even then, people saying, "Okay, then, how can I use this as a campaign to at least do something that instills some kind of meaning in it?"
And so, I've always been extremely inspired by this Viktor Frankl approach that, at the end of the day, most of the world is socially constructed. Everything, it's just made up.
One of the things that COVID showed us is all these assumptions we've had about the world and that you can always travel, stuff like that, from one day to the other, it just might be gone. And so, I've always been a big fan of Viktor Frankl. He survived the Holocaust. He was in a concentration camp or several.
You can imagine that's the toughest of situations. There's objectively no meaning. It's a completely meaningless situation to be there from your perspective and society, of course, as well. And so, in this kind of situation, he said, "You know what?
I will still create a meaning in this. In this meaningless situation, I will still take power." And so, what he did was, he said, "I will speak with a fellow prisoner every day to make them feel better. And now, I have reason to wake up tomorrow morning, because actually, I still have to talk with so many people to make them feel better, and I also still want to write this book."
And so, he built this duality of meaning into that crisis, and I've always found that inspiring, because I'm very lucky. I had two near-death experiences in life, and it's made me realize how quickly life can be over at any given second. And so, I operate a lot from this perspective of pre-mortem, what is something I would regret not having done and how can I do this now?
I've always been super fascinated by, for those of you interested, there's this deathbed regrets where a nurse asked people on their deathbed, "What do you regret?," and it's always the same stuff. It's always, "I wished I had lived a life truer to myself. I wished I had spent more time with the people I really love." It's things we all know, but we all think like, "Oh, yeah, no worries. I still have so much time," but we might not.
And so, to your earlier point, really thinking about those crisis moments, is there a teachable lesson here? Is that a teaching moment? And at the end of the day, from a long-term perspective, a lot of times these become inflection points for something beautiful.
It doesn't feel like it. In the moment of a breakup, for example, it feels like, "Oh, my god, the world's going down. This was the one person I was aligned with, and now, they're gone."
But actually, maybe that had to happen so that you find your true love, those kinds of things where it had to set you free in that way, and so on, and that's the same people who lose their job, and then set up the one company they always wanted to set up, stuff like that were the inflection point being really crucial.
That's also why I feel that mindset- I had a psychologist recently reaching out and saying, "Hey, look. This helps me decrease anxiety with my patients, because it takes away that pressure that there's only one way that's true, and that there's one way."
It always reminded me of, I had this amazing mentor once and he said, "Look, Christian, people like you always think there's only one way to 'Rome' the city. And then, you realize you don't even want to be in Rome." And to me, that always stuck that, yes, we stress ourselves so much that, "This is the one thing, the one track, the one this," and then you're there and you realize, who cares?
And so, I think that's really the thing that a lot of things that we pressure ourselves with are so socially constructed, that we can also deconstruct them. I think that's probably also why I'm so fascinated by everything that has to do with like cognition, how we can reframe situations and everything else, because it's so much just made up in our mind and self-limiting constraints that are there, and so I think there's a lot of that. So, thanks so much for your great insights, Pooja.
Pooja (Audience) 50:03
Sure. I would love to talk another time, actually, because I also have, yeah, this is going to be really fun to talk about, yeah.
Maiko Schaffrath 50:10
Amazing. Thank you so much, Pooja, for tuning in. Seems like everybody else has been a bit shy, and we do need to wrap up, so I will leave it at that, but I'm glad we had a bit of a discussion beyond just a question, which was great.
I'd like to ask you one more question, Christian, and Pooja, you're free to drop off if you like. Just if you could do me the favor of leaving this window open for a little bit, so we keep your questions saved, if you don't mind.
You can basically stop the live call in but leave the window open, that would be great. So, Christian, one more question I got for you is around one practical tool that entrepreneurs and founders can start using. If they want to have more serendipity in their life, what is one practical thing that founders can do to make that happen?
Christian Busch 51:05
Well, look, I'm a huge fan of doing very simple things like the way you ask questions. Do you ask people "What do you do?" question that puts people into boxes or do you ask, "What do you enjoy doing?"
It's a super simple tweak, but what that does is, instead of someone getting on autopilot and telling you, "I'm building a business in the solar industry," and blah, blah, they might be like, "Hey, I've always dreamt about how we can build a world that's carbon-efficient," blah, blah.
And then, someone like Pooja, might be like, "Wow, I'm working on climate change. I could fit into this," versus if you're just saying, "I'm building solar." It opens up the opportunity space when you're asking slightly more open-ended questions, and then at the same time, bringing those hooks when people ask you. To me, those kinds of things are the most effective ones, because you can have that in every conversation.
Every conversation, you can always plant these dots and ask people for their dots, and so I'm a big fan. If there's one thing you take from today, doing a serendipity journal or just a white page and stepping back and saying, "What are a couple of themes that I care about that feel meaningful to me?
That if I will be on my deathbed in a few days or weeks, that I would feel like I really want to do this now?," and then really bringing that into conversations.
And then, from the most unexpected places, someone might be like, "You always thought it would be such a great risk to build XYZ thing, but we already have a funded business that does exactly this, where you could join as a co-founder, and we can scale it up together."
The point here is that, in our mind, we always have these assumptions, "Oh, if I build a new startup, for example, it's so much risk," not if you do it with someone who already maybe went through a couple of trenches and did something XYZ, where they already have something in place where you can just join and help scale it up, things like this.
And so, I think it's really understanding the potentiality of everything once you put out there what feels truly meaningful, a key curiosity, whatever it is, I'm a big fan of this. It really comes back to, Maiko, this deeper philosophical- I grew up in Heidelberg, where we have this philosopher's way and [name] wrote their poems there. Look, a lot of this was about that the way you look at the world, good to have this beautiful thing around.
If you take someone as they are, you make them worse. But if you take them as who they could be, you make them capable of becoming who they can be, and that's what serendipity is about. Serendipity is about potentiality. It's about what could be there in yourself.
But more importantly, as a leader, also, how do you bring that out in others? And I think that's really a lot of things we talked about are, how do you bring the best out of people and out of yourself so that when you are on your deathbed, you're saying, "Okay, well, it was worth it"?
Maiko Schaffrath 53:37
That's an amazing way to end a podcast and amazing advice. Thank you so much, Christian. I really appreciate you taking the time, and I learned so much from just this episode from somebody that's not just an academic, but also a practitioner at heart and somebody that's really aligned with what we're trying to do at Impact Hustlers. We're really early, early on in the journey, but thank you so much. I learned a lot from you today, and I appreciate it. Thank you.
Christian Busch 54:05
No, thank you so much. Maiko, I think you're a great example of someone who is constantly connecting dots and making those things happen. Kudos for doing this. Thank you for having me and great to meet everyone. Looking forward to keeping in touch on LinkedIn, Twitter. So, happy to continue that conversation as well. Thank you.
Maiko Schaffrath 54:23
I really hope you enjoyed today's episode and learned some valuable lessons from today's guest. I want to share two things with you. First of all, if you're a founder and you're solving a social or an environmental problem with your company, there is something that we've launched recently to support founders like you and to introduce you to more founders that are like-minded and that are solving very difficult problems in the world, and that is the Impact Hustlers Community.
It is a community of over 100 founders that solve problems like climate change, education, the crisis in health care, and really pushing the boundaries on what's possible. And what we do as a community, we connect to each other, we run mastermind groups where you can connect to other entrepreneurs and founders.
We bring experienced investors, entrepreneurs, and experts in to run workshops and ask-me-anything sessions, and you can also connect to others in our online community. And we have something for those of you that are actually fundraising. We have an investor matching tool where you get introduced to relevant investors based on the startup that you're building.
But, it may be the case that you're not a founder, and you just want to be part of the change, and you want to join some of these companies that you've learned about here at the Impact Hustlers podcast, and we've got something for you as well. We've recently launched the Impact Hustlers Talent Collective.
This is a group of some of the most ambitious individuals in the world that want to make a change and an impact with their careers, and you can join the Talent Collective, obviously completely free of charge. You can apply to it, and we will introduce you on a regular basis to companies recruiting people like yourself. You'll get access to exclusive job opportunities from companies that have been on the podcast but also beyond that.
So, make sure that you go to impacthustlers.com/jobs if you're looking for jobs in the social impact space. Even if you're not actively looking right now, you should still sign up and be part of our Talent Collective. And if you're a founder, don't forget, go to impacthustlers.com/community. Okay, thanks very much for listening and bye. See you at the next episode.