50% of patents are inadvertent?So how many big ideas emerge from spills, crashes, failed experiments and blind stabs? One survey of patent holders (the PatVal study of European inventors, published in 2005) found that an incredible 50 percent of patents resulted from what could be described as a serendipitous process. Thousands of survey respondents reported that their idea evolved when they were working on an unrelated project — and often when they weren’t even trying to invent anything. This is why we need to know far more about the habits that transform a mistake into a breakthrough.
How to Cultivate the Art of Serendipity - The New York TimesA few months ago, I was having a drink in Cambridge, Mass., with a friend, a talented journalist who was piecing together a portrait of a secretive Wall Street wizard. “But I haven’t found the real story yet; I’m still gathering string,” my friend told me, invoking an old newsroom term to describe the first stage of reporting, when you’re looking for something that you can’t yet name. Later that night, as I walked home from the bar, I realized “gathering string” is just another way of talking about super-encountering. After all, “string” is the stuff that accumulates in a journalist’s pocket. It’s the note you jot down in your car after the interview, the knickknack you notice on someone’s shelf, or the anomaly that jumps out at you in Appendix B of an otherwise boring research study.
Serendipity rootsIn 1754, a belle-lettrist named Horace Walpole retreated to a desk in his gaudy castle in Twickenham, in southwest London, and penned a letter. Walpole had been entranced by a Persian fairy tale about three princes from the Isle of Serendip who possess superpowers of observation. In his letter, Walpole suggested that this old tale contained a crucial idea about human genius: “As their highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of.” And he proposed a new word — “serendipity” — to describe this princely talent for detective work. At its birth, serendipity meant a skill rather than a random stroke of good fortune.
Career as a Venn diagramJad Abumrad’s carefully planned vision came undone when he realized he wasn’t suited for the job he thought his major pointed toward. He had studied music composition and creative writing at Oberlin College and Conservatory, intending to score films. “That didn’t really work out. I just wasn’t very good at it. And so, at a certain point, I just gave it up. I thought my plan was wrong.” […]He was ready to start from scratch when his girlfriend reasoned that he didn’t have to abandon what he’d worked toward. “She made the suggestion, ‘You kind of like to write. You kind of like to make music. You’re not really good at either on their own terms, but maybe you could somehow find the middle ground. Try out radio.’ ” It wasn’t a seamless transition — he began by working for free — but he stuck it out, creating a style of radio that fuses science and storytelling with music and sound. As a producer and host of WNYC’s “Radiolab,” his job is eerily close to what he originally imagined for himself, scoring films; he just had to stretch his thinking to get there.
Life's turnsOn Christmas Eve of 1992, Puddicombe was eighteen*, and studying sports science at De Montfort University, when he left a party with a group of friends. A drunk driver plowed into the crowd, killing several people and putting twelve others in intensive care. Puddicombe wasn’t hurt, but he witnessed everything. Soon afterward, his stepsister died in a bicycling accident. He couldn’t shake the tragedies. “They lurked in the mind,” he told me. Back at school, sports no longer interested him; neither did partying. One day, in his dorm room, Puddicombe had a strange experience. “It’s a very difficult thing to put into words,” he told me. “I felt—the only way I can say it is ‘deeply moved.’ ” The feeling lasted for several hours, Puddicombe said. When it ended, he knew what to do with his life: become a Buddhist monk. “It didn’t feel like a choice,” he said.
Burt's Bees started with a hitch-hikerAccording to company lore, Burt's Bees began after a chance meeting in 1984. Shavitz, then 49, a reclusive beekeeper who lived in a converted turkey coop and sold honey in pickle jars from the back of a truck, picked up a hitchhiker on a Maine roadside: Roxanne Quimby, 34, a divorced mother of two. The two moved in together and began selling Quimby's hand-cut candles and Shavitz's honey at craft fairs, In 1988, Quimby began selling lip balm made from warm beeswax and clove oil. Burt's Bees incorporated in 1989, with Quimby holding a 70% stake and Shavitz 30%.
Fire, Football and the Story of a Renowned PhotographWhen he saw the first wisps of smoke, Robert Van Fleet related in a letter after the fire, he was troubled by “an immense feeling of helplessness.” But then his news instincts kicked in, and “the rather perverse possibilities of the scene dawned on me,” he said. He took about 20 pictures, timing them to coincide with the beginning or middle of plays, so that he could capture more people watching the game than watching the fire.
Keeping a fossil record in digital siltWe're going to need better apps to help us share, sort, and make sense of this new flood. Screenshots are more semantically diverse than typical snapshots, and we already struggle to manage our photo backlog. Rita J. King, codirector of the Science House consultancy, has thousands of screenshots from her online ramblings (pictures of bacteria, charts explaining probability). Rummaging through them reminds her of ideas she's forgotten and triggers new ones. “It's like a scrapbook, or a fossil record in digital silt,” King says. A lifetime of scraps, glimpsed through the screen.
Getting on a new line at SXSWA couple of years ago, tired of session chasing, I jumped into the next line I saw, which happened to be for Jeffrey Tambor's Actor's Workshop. Pushing a couple of young actors through multiple versions of a break-up scene, Tambor awakened in me a vision of the moment's edge. Life tempts us to stick to rehearsed scripts, but every word and step can unlock infinite alternative universes. — Henry Copeland
Gram Parsons meets Chris HillmanIn February 1968, 21-year-old Gram Parsons, a songwriter and trust fund baby from Winter Haven, Florida, met Chris Hillman, a soft-spoken guitarist and mandolinist from San Diego, while standing in a line in Beverly Hills bank. The 23-year-old Hillman was veteran of the SoCal bluegrass scene and was then playing bass for L.A. pop princes The Byrds. Hillman and Parsons bonded over their mutual love of country music and fast motorcycles, and Hillman soon brought the young upstart to the Byrds’ rehearsals.
Huffman coding, building block of data compression, was a student's final exam hackIn 1951, David A. Huffman and his MIT information theory classmates were given the choice of a term paper or a final exam. The professor, Robert M. Fano, assigned a term paper on the problem of finding the most efficient binary code. Huffman, unable to prove any codes were the most efficient, was about to give up and start studying for the final when he hit upon the idea of using a frequency-sorted binary tree and quickly proved this method the most efficient. In doing so, the student outdid his professor, who had worked with information theory inventor Claude Shannon to develop a similar code. By building the tree from the bottom up instead of the top down, Huffman avoided the major flaw of the suboptimal Shannon-Fano coding.
Key to great "Harvard sucks" prank was failure and new recruitsUnfortunately, many of their original collaborators from the year before were discouraged by the original plan's untimely demise. According to Kai, a new group of Yale students was recruited for the prank at Harvard Stadium. "Most of the people who helped us our junior year didn't want to help senior year, after seeing the failure," Kai told Business Insider. "So it became a mix of close friends and freshmen, who hadn't seen the failed plan."
How Joni Mitchell met Carey of Blue post GrahamThe next night, Penelope and I went to the Mermaid Café for a drink with Cary. Several hippies were there along with some soldiers. Someone recommended this clear Turkish liquor called raki. I wasn’t a big drinker, and after three glasses I woke up the next morning alone in Cary’s cave. The stacked leather heels of my city boots had broken off, apparently from climbing a mountain the night before. I had no recollection of the climb. Later, when I returned to my hut, Penelope was gone. I was told she went off with one of the soldiers from the Mermaid the night before. That was the last I saw of her for many years.
The mistake that led to purple dyeIn ancient times, purple chairs were virtually priceless. […]But that all changed in 1856, with a discovery by an 18-year-old English chemist named William Henry Perkin. Tinkering in his home laboratory, Perkin was trying to synthesize an artificial form of quinine, an antimalarial agent. Although he botched his experiments, he happened to notice that one substance maintained a bright and unexpected purple color that didn’t run or fade. […]He patented his invention — the first synthetic dye — created a company and sold shares to raise capital for a factory. Eventually his dye, and generations of dye that followed, so thoroughly democratized the color purple that it became the emblematic color of cheesy English rock bands, Prince albums and office chairs for those willing to dare a hue slightly more bold than black.
The mistake that led to the invention of CorningWareDr. Stookey had not planned to invent it. Experimenting at Corning one day in 1953, he put photosensitive glass into a furnace, intending to heat it to 600 degrees.“When I came back, the temperature gauge was stuck on 900 degrees, and I thought I had ruined the furnace,” he said in an interview several years ago. “When I opened the door to the furnace, I saw the glass was intact and had turned a milky white. I grabbed some tongs to get it out as fast as I could, but the glass slipped out of the tongs and fell to the floor. The thing bounced and didn’t break. It sounded like steel hitting the floor.”
Isaac Asimov's 1959 advice to MIT think-tank on creativityIf a single individual present is unsympathetic to the foolishness that would be bound to go on at such a session, the others would freeze. […]If a single individual present has a much greater reputation than the others, or is more articulate, or has a distinctly more commanding personality, he may well take over the conference and reduce the rest to little more than passive obedience. […] I should guess that no more than five would be wanted. A larger group might have a larger total supply of information, but there would be the tension of waiting to speak, which can be very frustrating. It would probably be better to have a number of sessions at which the people attending would vary, rather than one session including them all. […]It is not what people say at these conferences, but what they inspire in each other later on.)
Ben Bradlee tripped into his jobBut the Sunday News couldn’t make money, and it failed. Family friends offered to help Mr. Bradlee find a new job. Edward A. Weeks, the editor of the Atlantic Monthly, wrote a friend at the Baltimore Sun about Mr. Bradlee; Christian A. Herter, the congressman and former governor of Massachusetts, wrote to The Post. In November 1948, Mr. Bradlee set out on a train trip, bound from Boston to Baltimore to Washington to Salt Lake City to Santa Barbara. When his overnight train reached Baltimore, a heavy rainstorm discouraged him from getting off, so he decided to go first to Washington. The day before he arrived for an interview, a Post reporter had quit unexpectedly, creating a vacancy. Mr. Bradlee charmed The Post’s editors, who offered him a job for $80 a week, starting on Christmas Eve.
It’s not exactly rock ’n’ roll, but the woman who really changed Sting’s life – sorry, Trudie – was the Queen Mother. Young Gordon Sumner, dressed in his Sunday best almost 50 years ago, was mesmerised as her Rolls-Royce swished past the front door of his street in Wallsend, North Tyneside. […]The biggest vessels on the planet were hammered, welded and built there long before Gordon became Sting (named for wearing a black-and-yellow jersey, like a wasp).‘The Queen Mum waved and looked at me, and I looked back at her and that was it,’ he says. ‘There and then I thought, I am going to be rich, famous, successful and drive a Rolls-Royce like her.’He decided he would use his voice and guitar to get a big house in the country, great wealth and acclaim. And so it all came to pass
For the preserving of that force we have to thank not the foresight of those recording companies but their ignorance and even philistinism when it came to black culture. They knew next to nothing about the music and even less about what new trends in it might appeal to consumers. Nowhere was this truer than at Paramount. These were businessmen, Northern and Midwestern, former salesmen. Their notions of what was a hit and what was not were a Magic Eight Ball. So, when the mid-1920s arrived, and Paramount went looking farther afield for new acts, they compensated by recording everything and waiting to see what sold. Not everything, but a lot. A long swath of everything. The result was an unprecedented, never-to-be-repeated, all-but-unconscious survey of America’s musical culture, a sonic X-ray of it, taken at a moment when the full kaleidoscopic variety of prerecording-era transracial forms hadn’t yet contracted. Hundreds of singers, more thousands of songs.