In Praise of Serendipity and Beautiful Mistakes


In 1965, Arno Penzias and Robert Woodrow Wilson, two radio astronomers at Bell Labs, were looking for bird poo. That wasn’t what they’d planned to look for that day, but it was what they believed was getting in the way of them collecting meaningful data from their experiment.

No matter which direction they pointed their antenna, there was a constant noise humming in the background. Both men assumed there must be something interfering with the signal. It was only when they spoke to a friend who had read a paper on residual radiation left from huge explosions, that they realized they’d stumbled on something special.

Penzias and Wilson had looked for bird poo; they had accidentally discovered the first proof of cosmic microwave background radiation. Science finally had proof of the Big Bang and Penzias and Wilson had a Nobel Prize.

Then there’s the laser, one of the most important technological discoveries in decades with limitless applications in modern gadgets. Charles Townes, its inventor, has admitted that not only was there no use in his mind when he was developing it, but that his colleagues used to tease him for how useless it was.

Go back a bit further, and you have Scottish biologist Alexander Fleming discovering penicillin because he forgot to wash his Petri dishes.

Back to today, and we aren’t without our solutions found in unusual ways.

Famously developed as a side project by Jack Dorsey while he was working on a since-disappeared product, Twitter only became the focus of the company’s attention when it became abundantly clear they were backing the wrong horse.

And this wasn’t even the first time it happened to Dorsey, who had already developed “Blogger” as a side-project.

The question is, how do we maximize our exposure to these peripheral opportunities and how do we learn from them?

The answer? By letting people take chances, try different things, and almost most importantly, by allowing people to make mistakes and get into situations where serendipity can help them strike gold.

Don’t be so quick to call fail on someone who is trying something new. You don’t stumble across a nice town if you follow your satnav directions to the letter. The road less travelled isn’t always the road least worthy of travel.
When a Nobel Prize winner like Niels Bohr says, “An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made, in a narrow field,” it’s time to accept that mistakes aren’t what get in the way of success, they’re what propel us to it.

And as Scottish historian Robert Henry said: “Don’t ever be afraid to admit you were wrong. It’s like saying you’re wiser today than you were yesterday.”