Many of our popular stories of discovery are portrayed as accidents or matters of luck. We love these stories as they make creativity seem easy and fun, regardless of how misleading they are.
A recent NYTimes opinion titled Cultivating The Art of Serendipity, by Pagan Kennedy, offered:
“A surprising number of the conveniences of modern life were invented when someone stumbled upon a discovery or capitalized on an accident: the microwave oven, safety glass, smoke detectors, artificial sweeteners, X-ray imaging. “
What’s overlooked is that these accidents were earned. Each of these professionals committed themselves to years of work chasing hard problems, and then, when an accident happened, they chose not to ignore it, as most of us would. They chose to study the accident. Who among us studies our accidents? We mostly run and hide from them. Being curious about our own mistakes is a far more interesting attitude for life than someone who merely chases serendipity. Capitalizing on ‘accidents’ is an excellent notion that Kennedy mentions, however briefly, and I wish it were the focus of the article.
A common pattern of the Myth of Epiphany is creativity by accident. The very idea of the Muse, forces that choose to grant ideas to us from above, externalizes creativity, and accidents have similar appeal. Since we’re all often victims of accidents, we’re compelled by stories that redeem accidents into breakthroughs. Newton watching an apple fall, an ordinary event anyone could observe, is perhaps the greatest example of this kind of misleading storytelling (it took him years of work to describe the mathematics of gravity regardless of the apple’s disputed epiphanistic potency).
Kennedy’s opening example continues the myth’s stereotype:
In 2008, an inventor named Steve Hollinger lobbed a digital camera across his studio toward a pile of pillows. “I wasn’t trying to make an invention,” he said. “I was just playing.” As his camera flew, it recorded what most of us would call a bad photo. But when Mr. Hollinger peered at that blurry image, he saw new possibilities. Soon, he was building a throwable videocamera in the shape of a baseball, equipped with gyroscopes and sensors.”
- He was a professional inventor and artist (successful enough to be profiled by Susan Orlean in The New Yorker in 2008)
- He had a workshop for inventing things
- He worked over the course of a year on this project (which Kennedy refers to as ‘soon’)
- He built elaborate rigs capable of hosting multiple cameras
Hollinger stated “I was just playing” and I agree that play is a fantastic use of time and helpful towards developing skills for invention and creation for everyone. But it’s important to note that Hollinger’s idea of play is likely different from ours. It’s serious play. As the New Yorker described in 2008, this is no ordinary person:
He had spent the previous month mostly locked in his apartment, furiously teaching himself the principles of aerodynamics, the physics of hydrology, and the basics of how to operate a Singer sewing machine, and he was at last testing what he had been working on—a reimagined, reinvented umbrella, with gutters and airfoils and the elegant drift of a bird’s wing.
But Kennedy continues to emphasize accidents and randomness:
A surprising number of the conveniences of modern life were invented when someone stumbled upon a discovery or capitalized on an accident: the microwave oven, safety glass, smoke detectors, artificial sweeteners, X-ray imaging. Many blockbuster drugs of the 20th century emerged because a lab worker picked up on the “wrong” information.
Care to guess about the context these stumbles and accidents arrived in?
- Microwave oven: In 1945 Percy Spencer, an engineer at Raytheon, discovered a candy bar that melted in his pocket near radar equipment. He chose to do a series of experiments to isolate why this happened and discovered microwaves. It would take ~20 years before the technology developed sufficiently to reach consumers.
- Safety Glass: In 1903 scientist Edouard Benedictus, while in his lab, did drop a flask by accident, and to his surprise it did not break. He discovered the flask held residual cellulose nitrate, creating a protective coating. It would be more than a decade before it was used commercially in gas masks.
- Artificial Sweeteners: Constantine Fahlberg, a German scientist, discovered Saccharin, the first artificial sweetener, in 1879. After working in his lab he didn’t wash his hands, and at dinner discovered an exceptionally sweet taste. He returned to his lab, tasting his various experiments, until rediscovering the right one (literally risking his life in an attempt to understand his accident).
- Smoke Detector: Walter Jaeger was trying to build a sensor to detect poison gas. It didn’t work, and as the story goes, he lit a cigarette and the sensor went off. It could detect smoke particles, but not gas. It took the work of other inventors to build on his discovery to make commercial smoke detectors.
- X-Rays: Wilhelm Roentgen was already working on the effects of cathode rays during 1895, before he actually discovered X-rays. was a scientist working on cathode rays. On November 8, 1895, during an experiment, he noticed crystals glowing unexpectedly. On investigation he isolated a new type of light ray.
And how many accidents among similarly talented and motivated people were dead ends? We are victims of survivorship bias in our popularizing of breakthrough stories, giving attention only to successful outcomes from accidents, while ignoring the vast majority of accidents and mistakes that led absolutely nowhere.
To be more helpful, work is the essential element in all finished creative projects and inventions. No matter how brilliant the idea, or miraculous its discovery, work will be required to develop it to the point of consumption by the rest of the world. And it’s effort, even if in pursuit of pleasure, that provides the opportunity for serendipity to happen. Every writer, artist and inventor is chasing something, even if it turns out to be the wrong thing, on their way to their moments of insight. There is no way to pursue only the insights themselves, anymore than you could harvest a garden without planting seeds. The unknown can not be predictable, and if creativity is an act of discovery then uncertainty must come with the territory.
Curiosity is a far simpler concept than serendipity and far more useful. People who are curious are more likely to expend effort to answer a question on their mind. To be successful in creative pursuits requires an active curiosity and a desire to do experiments and make mistakes, having the sensibility that a mistake is a kind of insight, however small, waiting to be revealed.
The Myths of Innovation (the actual myths) will always be popular, which means for any inspiring story of a breakthrough, we must ask:
- How much work did the creator do before the accident/breakthrough happened?
- How much work did they do after the accident/breakthrough to understand it?
- What did they sacrifice (time/money/reputation) to convince others of the value of the discovery?
It’s answering these 3 questions about any creativity story in the news, however accidental or deliberate, that reveals habits to emulate if we want to follow in their footsteps.