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How to Succeed, Since Success Is Random

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Little did Abigail Washburn know that her life would forever change after she went to a party where she heard a record of traditional folk and bluegrass singer and flatpicking guitar player Doc Watson singing "Shady Grove." She had what Frans Johansson dubs a click moment.

She'd already become proficient in Chinese because she planned to study law in China, with the goal of improving U.S. Chinese relations.

A Life That Turned on a Dime, As Yours Can Too

After hearing Watson, she decided she wanted to sing American folk songs and play the banjo so she headed to Appalachia. Several lessons later, she wound up at a Kentucky Bluegrass Music Festival, where she was sitting in a hallway one night, when strangers asked her to jam with them. A record executive heard her and put her under contract, so she went to Nashville where she wrote songs and began singing at concerts. Later this curly-haired American did take her banjo to China to sing their songs and hers in Chinese, spurring audiences to sing along. Eight years and hundreds of concerts later, Washburn shared her saga at TED where she recalled singing in a relocation camp in an earthquake disaster zone. Afterwards a young girl came up to ask her, "Big sister Wong, can I tell you about the song my mother sang to me before the earth swallowed her up?" I was moved to joy and tears, hearing Washburn sing with her banjo, and tell her story of a life that turned on a dime. Several times. Looking back, haven't there been unexpected times in your life where you met someone or heard an idea that positively changed the course of your life?

Pivot to a More Profitable Possibility

When you are open to serendipitous experiences you are more likely to have click moments, enabling you to pivot more than once into new, more successful directions, as Mandy Williams discovered after spending "thousands of hours" crafting a business plan for her entertainment production company. Her first pivot came when her sister's husband lost his job, she told Marcia Layton Turner for an Entrepreneur magazine article on the value of "Short but Sweet" business plans. After collaborating with her sister on how to get through the stress and money issues her sister faced they had a Click Moment. They realized that others, in this wobbly economy, needed similar financial planning skills. Again Williams tackled the task of creating a business plan, this time for a life-skills TV show, jump starting the business with a book they launched at a Neiman Marcus event where an audience member asked, "Why aren't the lessons in your book being taught in the schools?" Click. They are now successfully selling a program for teaching personal financial literacy in schools.

Courting Serendipity Invites More Productive Adventures

Accepting that serendipitous events play a greater role in your life than those you have planned can make life feel more like an adventure, rather than a frightening series of situations against which we must protect ourselves. As well, others may be having similar click moments at the same time, an effect called Multiple Discovery. That happened with the invention of can openers, keyboards and rollaboards, notes Matt Ridley, citing What Technology Wants author Kevin Kelly. Recognizing that collective click moments can happen can make us feel more interconnected.

If Frans Johansson, author of The Click Moment, heard these true stories, he'd probably nod in quick understanding. Why? Because, for example, the music moved Washburn to recognize, in several apparently random incidents, a more fruitful and satisfying way to use her talents. She recognized serendipitous moments where invention and reinvention can happen, and we can too. In this increasingly complex yet connected world, let's see how to succeed with them.

How Success Actually Happens

We can be misled by some common beliefs about how success actually happens. Among them is the notion that companies and individuals must stick to a plan, rather than iteratively experiment, making what Peter Sims calls little bets, which Johannson built upon by recommending purposeful bets, one that cause you to take action sooner rather than later, then learn from what happens. As Silicon Valley venture capitalist, Randy Haykin told Johansson, "The most important goal of a business plan is to show that a team is moving in some coordinated fashion toward a goal. The plan itself will be outdated within the month."

Two often intertwined instincts are our deep desire to understand why unexpected things happen, and to want control over the events that affect us or our business. This leads to another mistaken notion, especially in business. We are eager to believe that the success of a company or individual is determined by what they are doing right now, what Phil Rosenzweig dubbed The Halo Effect. For example, as Johansson describes in his book, "When Cisco is doing great, we can find an explanation for it. When it does poorly, we can find an explanation for that too... We would hate it if someone told us Cisco is doing well but we are not sure why....."

Yet, citing Duncan Watt's findings in Everything Is Obvious Once You Know the Answer, Johansson points out that, we are prone to accepting post-hoc rationalizations and to believing that our success is predominantly tied to our talent.

Sure, as Malcolm Gladwell believes, some endeavors require unrelenting practice, perhaps 10,000 hours to master. They include basketball, chess, tennis and violin playing, Johansson found, yet a rapidly increasing range of lucky breaks spring from our capacity to recognize and seize unexpected opportunities. Talent is over-rated, as Geoff Colvin discovered.

"Our power of predicting success is essentially zero"

Instead, Johansson writes, "We can now begin to see the contours of a real paradox. Study after study indicates that our power of predicting success is essentially zero." In my interview with Johansson he mused, "It is fascinating how we are so willing to accept randomness in falling in love, the unexpected way it happens, yet we resist believing that unexpected factors affects much of the rest of our life. Instead we should welcome understanding how to benefit from the serendipitous moments that can spur innovation, and more."

Three More Reasons to Focus of Finding Click Moments

1."The faster the world changes, the faster other people or organizations can catch up with you. The speed of discovering and sharing new business practices, marketing campaigns, products, or services has reached a fever pitch."

2. "The interconnected universe we are building across cultures, industries, and other barriers makes for a hyperadaptive environment, one in which a logical approach to strategy will fare worse and worse when others can easily copy and adopt successful practices, quickly diminishing their advantage."

3. "But this interconnectedness also increases the frequency of serendipitous encounters and unexpected insight and enables far greater rates of innovation. "

Stepping off your familiar path increases your chances of having click moments with disparate people with whom you share a strong sweet spot of shared interest. Reinforcing that notion, Future Perfect author, Steven Johnson cites research that suggests that "diversity trumps ability": in other words, a large, diverse group of non-experts often outperforms a small group of experts."

Like Johansson, Johnson takes an optimistic view of our increasingly connected world. Johnson's complementary prediction is that some of the most positive changes that will unfold in our fast changing worlds won't happen because of traditional capitalism or government initiatives but rather from progressive peer networks, where shared-interest groups innovative faster.

Two of my favorite examples of positive, proliferating innovation and camaraderie that can be experienced within the peer communities of shared interest are Quantified Self and Shareable.

Unexpected, Click-Moment-Based Success Stories

Click moments are key to many unexpected success stories, Johansson discovered. Here are two of my favorite click moments he cites in his book, which I paraphrase here to summarize:

• Ben Silbermann and Evan Sharp met for a beer and discovered they both loved collecting. Click. Talking further they thought, "Why not develop a way to digitally display your collections?" That interest grew into a shared passion to create a service that looked obvious -- after it was created. That passion fueled their little bets so that, despite a lack of programming expertise, they managed to pull in others to create one of the web's fastest-growing social networks, Pinterest.

Stephanie Meyer had no writing experience and knew nothing about vampires, yet waking up from a vivid dream about them, she felt passionately driven to share the story she dreamed. Serendipitous events skyrocketed her to fame in our connected world. As Johansson notes, her Twilight books have broken J.K. Rowlings' record of Harry Potter book sales, and all have been made into movies "that have broken box-office records around the world," according to Johansson.

See Serendipity as a Way to Stay Relevant

Here is another reason to adopt the click moment approach to your work and life. Meghan M. Biro, in her Forbes column, advocates reverse mentoring, a method that I believe spurs serendipitous discovery of unexpected shared sweet spots of mutual interest as well as social learning. Biro cites my former colleague at the Center for the Edge, John Hagel. "Formal schooling and degrees give workers about five years' worth of useable skills," according to Hagel and others at Harvard Business Review.

Consequently, staying open to serendipitous introductions increases the chances you'll meet the right people and learn the apt information, as banjo-tooting Washburn, did, to stay relevant and, better yet, keep opening adventuresome chapters to the life you are truly meant to live with others.

Recognize the Kinds of Randomness That Attract Opportunity

Johansson cites three types:

1. The "specific instant when an unexpected connection or event changes the trajectory of success."

2. Become comfortable with having several favors if you are making several small bets that iteratively teach you more about the most successful approach. That's using "randomness to your statistical advantage."

3. Accept that "success must be a result of dozens, even thousands, of possible forces that change with every action and interaction." Rely on your flexible, observant and wide-ranging interconnectivity with others rather than on a detailed plan of action

What Makes Click Moments Different Than Other Ways of Finding Connections and Ideas?

Recognize click moments in three ways, according to Johansson:

1. "They tend to occur when two separate concepts, ideas or people meet.
2. "They are impossible to predict as to when, how or where they will happen."
3. You may recognize them because they often evoke emotional responses "such as happiness, awe or excitement."

Your Hook on Which to Hang Serendipitous Collaboration

Johansson advocates creating a "large hook" -- some visible service, product, event or other attractive force onto which others can latch so you can attract relevant people to your project. As humans, we are wired to be literal and tactile, so actually seeing something that you have created can spark other's desire to improve, add to, or otherwise alter -- or suggest a completely new and better direction, as Mandy Williams and many others have discovered, perhaps including you.

Be the Glue That Bonds Us Together to Leverage Our Greater Success

If you found these ideas helpful, for accomplish greater things with others than you can't do on your own, you may also be interested Help the Helper by Kevin Pritchard and John Eliot. They describe proven yet unconventional practices from their work with sports teams for "building a culture of extreme teamwork." Pritchard is the general manager for the Indiana Pacers and a former general manager for the Portland Trail Blazers and Eliot is a consultant to professional athletes and coaches. While I have coached five pro athletes on becoming quotable, I am not an avid sports fan, yet I found the methodology in this book, tied to apt and moving true stories, to be inspiring, not just for the success their approach has generated but also for the positive character qualities, inherent in it, including altruism, trust and courage.

One of My Dreams

I'd love to be on a conference stage, facilitating a lively conversation among Johansson, Johnson, Pritchard and Eliot about how to lead a meaningful life of camaraderie and accomplishment in this connected world.