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Sagacity, Serendipity and Success.

Last week I was lucky enough to get to spend some time away.  I deliberately left my laptop at home, and only took a couple of books and a magazine with me.

What a pleasure it was too, no Facebook, no twitter, no blog reading. What a fantastic experience. Suddenly my mind was allowed time to wonder and to ignore what the sociologists call “value homophily”. “Value homophily” is that tendency to surround yourself with like-minded people. Take a look at your fb news feed, or twitter feed, how many of the people on there are outside your box?

I can count on one hand the different people in my feed, and I know I’m guilty of mostly ignoring what they say. I’m guilty of mostly following coaches, sports scientists & athletes. In fact, I can safely say that not one of my Facebook friends, twitter follows or anyone in any of my g+ circles is an overweight diabetic evangelist video-gamer.

And that’s a shame. Not because I’m missing an opportunity to belligerently remind him of the virtues of a balanced diet and exercise but because the way we’re organising ourselves using social media is cutting us off from the outside influence. The way we use it as a safety blanket in uncomfortable situations – how many times have you quickly dug out your earphones when that weird hippy looking guy sits next to you on the train? By constantly hemming yourself into these narrow channels and information streams are we missing out on wider experiences? Are we losing that ability to think outside the box? Don’t get me wrong, I bloody love social media and think it’s a great tool, but do I need to start using it slightly differently?

This week I’ve seen a couple of articles that have really made me think about this point. The first (and the one that triggered this blog) is an article by Ian Leslie in Intelligent life magazine. I read it at Birmingham airport while waiting to board my flight. It’s about serendipity. And whether it was an unconscious reaction, or serendipitous fortune, it remained in the back of my mind while I was away and when I saw these bits and pieces they seemed to sing of the importance of serendipity, sagacity and ultimately success.

In the Health section of the New York Times Magazine there was an article about Tim Brown, aka The Berlin Patient, who has been cured of HIV. When Tim was diagnosed with Leukaemia, his oncologist had the novel idea to transfuse stem cells from an individual who carries the CCR5 gene mutation (which makes you virtually immune to the effects of HIV). It didn’t work the first time, however, a second (necessary) transfusion worked. Tim Brown is now living virus free and has done for 10 or so years. Initially the case was dismissed by the HIV experts, who simply didn’t believe him because the oncologist was not an expert in HIV, but his sagacity has been proved, and the Berlin Patient heralded a new breakthrough in the search for a cure for HIV. The ability to perceive this potential benefit by the oncologist is a fantastic example of how lateral thinking is such an important tool.

The second piece I saw was on the BBC News. It was a short, curious segue into the sports section. The Belgian athletics team are currently trekking across the second largest glacier in Iceland. What a bizarre thing to do I thought. The UK Athletics team are at altitude in hot, sunny Kenya, why on earth would the Belgians be going to Iceland, in December!? I thought on it a while. Long duration aerobic exercise, team work, mental fortitude, problem solving. Suddenly it makes some sense. What I really want to know is who thought of doing that? Its way outside conventional wisdom for training, especially for sprinters, so the head coach must have at some point been reading, or talking to someone outside his box. We will have to wait 7 months to see if it’s paid off, but if it does, then the spark that led to that expedition would be regarded with serendipitous wonder so talking and reading outside your area could prove hugely valuable and successful.

Finally, there was an editorial piece on Thomas Heatherwick in Intelligent Life magazine. He is a Brit who is literally creating success. A designer by training and trade, yet he is now one of the most well-regarded architects in the world. By not following the usual route to architecture, and allowing multiple stimuli to influence his designs he now boasts a fantastic portfolio of work; from the British Pavilion at the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai, to the new London Busses. To me at least, he is a shining example of how thinking outside his own box; and even peeking into other people’s boxes has resulted in him accomplishing world-wide success. I hope that by maintaining on open mind, I can stay receptive to external influences and continue to transfer concepts between my areas.

I find sites like stumble upon a fantastic way to explore things that are way out of my area, but they’re interesting. So over the Christmas period I am making a conscious effort to read some different websites, blogs and news sites. As Pasteur said: “In the field of observation, chance favours only the prepared mind”.

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