“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.” – Steve Jobs
The above quote comes from Steve Jobs’ Stanford address in 2005 – and it’s something that you may have heard before.
The dots in our lives can only be connected looking backwards, but the events of our lives are also what tie together to take us to where we are today – and these join together to make a significant impact on our lives.
Ever since I first heard that quote, I’ve always wondered if it is possible to engineer our own “dots”, to “manufacture serendipity” if you will.
To explain this I’m going to borrow 2 terms from The Power of Story – turning points and tipping points.
Turning points are the dots in our lives. They are events or things that happen, which can be positive or negative, but they are the fabric of the stories in our lives. How we think about our turning points changes how we feel about our life stories. As pointed out though, we often don’t notice turning points until after the fact.
Tipping points are just like turning points, but they are turning points that have accumulated a certain amount of momentum or “critical mass” behind them – they literally “tip over” the story that we’re living in and open up a new chapter or phase of our life.
And it turns out that by using this idea of turning points and tipping points, we can manufacture serendipity to some degree, and it operates as something of a paradox:
We can’t tell if something is a dot/turning point until after the fact – but we can do things and take action to generate as many significant turning points (and tipping points) as possible.
And this article is going to show you how.
A Story of Asian Efficiency
To illustrate via example, let’s look at how Asian Efficiency came to be as it exists today. It will show you how a lot of the dots seem completely random, but how some were specifically engineered to happen as well.
From Aaron’s perspective:
I grew up in a non-productive household. Everyone worked hard (courtesy of generations of Confucian teachings), but there was no real system in place. As is stereotypical of Asian families, there was an insistence on setting a target of “get all A’s at school” and the process of learning that started me on a journey of learning how to set a goal and then take action towards getting it.
During university I wanted to spend a semester studying abroad. It was originally supposed to be Asia, but on a whim a friend suggested that the US would be an easier transition and more fun – I went, and turned out that I really enjoyed it. So after university, I moved to the US, looking for opportunities.
And I looked at a lot of opportunities – corporate, networking marketing, different types of marketing, different types of industries, startups… and eventually stumbled across the online marketing industry. The events at that point get kind of blurry – but fast forward a couple of years and I find myself at a conference in New York, where the only other Asian guy in the room is wearing a bright red velvet blazer and has blue hair. I say hi, it turns out his name is Thanh.
A few months later, I’m giving a private presentation in London to a group of friends called “Asian Efficiency: How to Defy the Law of Physics and Productivity”. It goes well, and they say that I should turn it into a product or website.
At this point I’m still heavily involved in my marketing business, so I don’t give it a second thought.
Shortly after London, I find myself moving to Asia – that’s where the future of the world is supposed to be, right? I randomly get a Facebook message from Thanh that he wants to come out to Asia and asks if it’s OK if he crashes on my couch for a while.
I say yes, and while he’s here, we mutually convinced each other to start Asian Efficiency.
From Thanh’s perspective:
When I was 6 my parents sent me to live in the US – all I remember from that time was falling in love with McDonald’s and Disneyland, and promising myself that one day I would come back to live in America.
After I finished high school in the Netherlands I had a choice – stay in Europe, or move to the US for college, which I did. While there I kept on asking myself the question – what am I going to do after college?
And so I went looking for opportunities. Looking for internships, odd jobs, work, anything that would give me a sign as to where I should be heading.
I met an entrepreneur who took me under his wing and mentored me – he taught me a lot about life, business, and relationships. He also sent me out as a representative of his company to a lot of conferences.
At one conference in New York, this crazy Asian kid with Super-Saiyan hair came up to me and introduced himself, and I made a note to stay in touch via Facebook.
A few months later my student visa ran out, and my residency was still in processing and I didn’t know where to go – back to the Netherlands, or maybe somewhere different.
I messaged a few different friends around the world and Aaron said “sure, come stay at my place in Bangkok”. I figured that “fun and travel” would be better than anything else I could do at the time, so off I went.
When I got there Aaron and I talked a lot about working styles and running a business and entrepreneurship in general, and he told me about this weird thing call “Asian Efficiency” that he had taught to some friends in London. I told him we should register the domain – and that’s exactly what we did.
Generating More Turning Points
From the Story of Asian Efficiency above, it can be easy to say that everything that happened was simply because of circumstance, because “it just happened”.
But that would be unfair. It is most definitely possible to generate more turning points in our lives, if we make a few distinctions.
The first is to say yes to more things – yes to more introductions, yes to more opportunities to travel, yes to more opportunities to meet new people.
The second is to ride the chaos, which means letting opportunities pan themselves out with minimal investment – for example, adding someone you meet to Facebook and messaging them every now and then.
The third is to do more things and get more involved. Before we started Asian Efficiency, both Thanh and myself did a lot of things. We went a lot of different places. We met a lot of different people. We tried a lot of different things.
The fourth is to optimize your activities for distribution. That’s productivity geek-speak for saying “do things that let you meet people from different walks of life”. One of my best friends here in Asia used to drive forklifts. Another used to be a medical doctor. When you meet people from different walks of life, they bring different perspectives and opportunities into our life, and help you generate more potential turning points in your life. If you want to look more into this, do a search for “weak tie vs strong ties” online.
The last is to write stories that generate turning points. Read the Power of Story. Write your stories on paper. Then go write them in real life – live a life where your experiences create stories that are interesting, that have turning points and tipping points and plot twists, and that other people are drawn to.
Connecting the Dots
Connecting the dots (or “recognizing turning points in retrospect”) is simple – keep a journal. Do your weekly reviews. Do your annual reviews. See the course of events that take place in your life over a year, and see how they link together.
If you want to get fancy and draw up a “chain of events” diagram, you can do that too.
Engineering Tipping Points
Tipping Points are turning points with momentum behind them. They are the thing that we clearly look back on and say “that changed my life”.
So how do we engineer these?
We need to look at when we’re doing something and recognize that it’s gaining momentum. It might be a new job, a new business, a relationship, or just a sense of excitement that something is about to happen. If it feels exciting (or uncomfortable), keep the momentum because a tipping point is coming soon.
To keep that momentum, you need to keep doing what you’re doing – focus a little, and strike while the iron is hot.
And to do this, we need a bit of faith in ourselves. Actually, we need a lot of faith in ourselves and our goals. This is what pushes us through the discomfort, past the tipping point and into the next phase of our lives.
So the question remains – can we manufacture serendipity?
I believe we can. And I’ll give you 2 perspectives on how to do this.
The first is from The Power of Story.
One of the principle that Loehr discusses is that if we find ourselves grinding away with no meaning or purpose at something, it is time to rewrite our stories. It is time to look for new turning points and to make them happen, to get the story moving again.
The second comes from the Chinese tradition of luck, in which there are 3 types of luck.
Heavenly Luck is the first type, and this is what in the West we call “lady luck” – they are the things that happen to us without us ever doing anything to go about creating them.
Earthly Luck is the luck from our environment, from the world around us. This is about being in the right place at the right time, say during an economic boom or a gold rush.
Man-made Luck is the final type, and this is the luck from our goals, actions and the things that we can impact. It is the result of us taking action and putting things out into the world, be it knowledge, wisdom or otherwise. It is the result of us taking our lives in different directions – for example, moving to a country or city where changes and growth are happening.
This article has been long, so let’s keep the summary brief:
- Make your own luck.
- Believe in yourself.
- Write your own story.
- Generate turning points and engineer tipping points.
- Manufacture serendipity, just because you can.
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