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The Science of Luck


Are you under pressure to pull something BIG out the bag? Feeling a bit daunted, stuck, or out your depth? Worried they're going to finally discover you don't really know what you're doing?

Would it reassure you to learn that Nobel Prize winners and globally successful innovators didn’t really know what they were doing either? Insulin, penicillin, Viagra, dynamite, pacemakers, microwave ovens, the Post-it note…

Luck has been playing a central role in major scientific breakthroughs for centuries. She (lets call luck a 'she') has been the unsung hero left to sweep the lab while everyone else scurries off to the award ceremony.

But things are about to change.

The Science of Luck is putting Luck centre stage and revealing her weird and wonderful ways. Ohid Yaqub is the British researcher leading a €1.4m programme unearthing the role Luck has played in the history of scientific breakthroughs. His first paper is jam-packed with fascinating insights: Luck is not random, she turns up in a variety of ways, and she seems attracted to certain sorts of people.

If you want Luck to turn up to help you pull something out the bag, here's 9 ways to help seduce her.

Lesson #1: Give A Shit (GAS) about something

Luck does not seem attracted to cynics. Luck came to visit our Nobel Prize winners and creative innovators while they were working on something they GAS about*. If you want Luck to pay you a visit you’ve got to be a GASer. And, the more bold and audacious you are about it the more impressed Luck seems to be. Making a difference, finding a cure, breaking the mold, saving lives… these are like catnip for Luck. Bottom line is you got to GAS about something other than you – sorry!

* Some Nobel Prize winners made a breakthrough in a field they did not initially GIS about (Pasteur was working on wine production, for example). But the fact remains; they were working on the thing they GAS about when their unexpected and unrelated, lucky breakthrough happened.

Lesson #2: Leap into Action

Annoyingly, Luck doesn’t seem to visit people sitting around in their underpants playing computer games. No matter how deeply you GAS about something, if you don’t start doing something about it Luck won’t want your phone number, let alone a date. As the Chinese proverb goes: Person must sit long time on side of hill with mouth open before roast duck flies in.

Luck likes a BEGINer: those brave souls who can transition from talking about something into taking practical action. There is no step as important as your first step. As Goethe says: ‘The moment one definitely commits oneself providence moves too… Boldness has genius, magic, and power in it. Begin it now!’

Unfortunately the level of interest Luck takes in first steps is the equivalent of an enigmatic ‘thumbs up’ text message. In all the history of scientific breakthroughs, first steps consistently fail to convince Luck to go out on a date. For example, Salvarsan (dubbed the magic bullet of chemotherapy) was the 606th preparation tried by Elrich. Luck seems to go for long-term, committed relationships. You’ve got to up your game and create more momentum to convince her you’re worth the effort.

Lesson #3: Controlled Sloppiness

Luck isn’t looking for perfectionists; she seems to go for thoughtful people who are a bit scruffy around the edges and open to surprises. Be bold and try things you aren’t sure will land. The discovery of uranium fission and the development of the telegraph came about this way (untidy experiments having unexpected and excellent results). Radiation therapy failed to impress anyone when the experiments were conducted in tidy, highly controlled conditions – it was the sloppy work of Kelner & Dulbecco (doing experiments in different places and different light conditions, e.g. near a window some days, not near a window on others), which struck gold. Loosen-up and stop being so uptight.

Lesson #4: Be Playful

Luck seems to have a special place in her heart for spontaneous, light-hearted people. DuPont never wrote on his To Do list: ‘Mess about with our new material: run down the corridor and see how far it stretches’, but he wouldn’t have understood the incredible properties of nylon without doing that. Flemming had a penchant for making pretty patterns on agar plates (e.g. he made Union Jacks, rock gardens, etc.); his playful ways kept him amused long enough to discover what he called ‘Mould Juice’ (penicillin).

Interestingly, Flemming was a proponent of controlled sloppiness too: he threw a bunch of agar dishes in a corner of his notoriously messy lab when he went off on holiday for the summer. During his absence one dish became contaminated with an award winning fungus. As he said, ‘When I woke up just after dawn on September 28, 1928, I certainly didn't plan to revolutionise all medicine by discovering the world's first antibiotic.’

Messing about with new techniques and technologies has struck gold for many too; game-changing ideas often sit around for years awaiting a completely ignorant person with a new toy to stumble on a proof, as was the case with Pulsars, and the discovery of cosmic background radiation.

Lesson #5: Enjoy Cock-ups

Luck seems to pull out all the stops for people who relish mistakes and cock-ups. Greatbatch used the wrong resistor in his device for recording heartbeats and the resulting (unwanted & embarrassing) pulsing ended up becoming a breakthrough therapy for irregular heartbeats (the pacemaker). Benedictus dropped a flask he was carrying and noticed that it broke but didn’t shatter (because of a solution it contained); that solution became the basis for shatterproof glass. Daguerre (the father of photography) lost his rag after spending years trying to coax photographic images out of iodized silver plates; he threw them in a cupboard one day where a spilled jar of mercury accidentally produced a perfect image.

Do you try to cover up your mistakes and incongruent data? Are you someone who tries to sweep errors under the carpet in a vain attempt to maintain the illusion of competence? Luck wont like you if you do. Let your mask slip a little, she does like that.

Lesson #6: Curiosity & Wonderment (not Expectation)

Being a know-it-all is like Luck repellent; Luck has little time for people trying to prove themselves right. We all tend to see what we expect to see, but, despite spending many years developing theories on how the world works, our breakthrough scientists were able to free themselves from the perceptual prison this drive can create. Our innovators seduced luck into paying them a visit by virtue of their curiosity and wonderment about the world; their prepared but open mind.

Oerstead’s observation of electromagnetism in 1820 actually proved himself wrong, and became a pivotal breakthrough in the development of the telegraph. It was a Pfizer scientist who noticed how reluctant patients were to give back spare Viagra pills after a trial to prove the drug’s efficacy in the treatment of angina. 'Never have so many unused clinical trial pills been reported as lost, misplaced, or accidentally flushed down the toilet.’ Side effects, it seems, are not always undesirable. Brock made a game-changing breakthrough in the development of biotechnology when his curiosity accidentally wandered to bacteria living in hot springs:

“It would sound reasonable if I were to say that our research work... began as a result of a grand design, with a vision of the goals in mind. Unfortunately, this would not be true. This work began the day I took a detour through Yellowstone National Park on my way to Seattle.” (Thomas Brock)

As Yates said, 'The world is full of magical things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.

Lesson #7: Ask for Help

If you believe that asking for help shows weakness and incompetence then Luck is going to get out your car and walk home. Many great breakthroughs came about because someone got stuck and sought the help of a friend who turned out to have a mission-critical input. Peter Agre won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2003 for the discovery of Aquaporins (dubbed ‘the plumbing system for biological cells’), but it was the input of his old haematology professor that proved the critical turning point (Agre had sought him out to help make sense of the weird things he kept observing in his experiments).

Lesson #8: Steal like an Innovator

A lot of great innovations fall into the category of Solutions without a Problem, and Luck seems to take a shine to the opportunistic people who put other’s ideas to practical use. It was Claude in 1912, watching his professor show off the new gases he’d discovered at a lecture (lighting them up by passing an electric current through them), who realised its commercial application (neon signs). It was a 3M scientist, Spencer Silver, who invented the glue that wouldn’t stick while attempting to develop a super-strong adhesive. Perhaps it was Silver's shame and embarrassment as a dud within the glue-world that rendered him blind to its multi-million dollar application. Not so his colleague, Art Fry, who started using it for bookmarks in his hymnbook, and, courtesy of 3M’s officially sanctioned "permitted bootlegging" policy (designed ‘to make things happen’), Fry took the idea forward and developed the Post-it note.

Lesson #9: Galvanise a Network

Luck seems to really like it when we are bold enough to shout out loudly, as well as reach out for help to a diverse network. She has little time for people who think they can do it all themselves, who stick within the confines of their ivory tower, or get addicted to the noddy dog, ‘homogenous echo chamber’ of the Board room.

Luck will reward you handsomely if you can excite a whole system, especially the least paid and least valued. It was a laboratory technician not the consultant researchers who noticed the urine of pancreas-less animals swarming with flies (because it was full of sugar), an observation pivotal in discovering insulin. A nurse that noticed babies with beds by windows recovered faster from jaundice, putting UV treatment on the neonatal map.

Luck is particularly keen to hang with you if you dare to go outside your own industrial sector, which is kind of poetic and a good place to end this article, because that’s exactly what Robert K Merton did, the guy who put the science of serendipity on the map in 1936. His paper, ‘Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action’ may not have reached light of day had he not been able to enlist a radically diverse network of people to send him examples of serendipity from across the globe. How did he do that?

Merton was bold and audacious. He wanted to ‘democratize’ innovation and kick at the walls of a system intent on making it the preserve of an academic elite. He was shouting loudly that even a klutz like you or me could learn to do amazing things, if only we could let go of conventional notions. Isn’t that something worth believing in? I think its what inspired and excited his diverse network to help him. And this, my patient reader, brings us back to the beginning of this story...

You see it really does pay in so many ways to start giving a shit about something.

Peter Lodemore is a disruptive and loving influence, a coach, leadership consultant, keynote speaker, and potter.

The Science of Luck is part of my new, thought provoking and inspiring programme Breakthrough Leadership. Follow this link for a flyer and delivery formats.