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Serendipity: increasing your chances for happy accidents | Just Reflections - Issue #27
My wife hosts an Instagram live book club every Thursday at 5:30 pm GMT (I’m being highly specific with the details, wink wink). They’re currently reviewing George S Clason’s “The Richest Man In Babylon” and this week they were on Chapter 4 titled, “Meet the goddess of good luck”. Before she read the chapter, she was saying she’s uncomfortable about the chapter because she doesn’t believe in luck. That’s what got me thinking this week, so let’s talk about luck.
I’m a software engineer and I really love what I do. I don’t have Monday anxiety thinking, here we go again. Most days when I clock out at work, I just stop coding on my work computer and start doing it on my personal computer on my own projects. I love creating. I’m a math nerd and I love critical thinking and problem-solving. Software engineer allows me to do exactly that all day long and get paid for it. I haven’t always felt his way though. And I in no way knew that I’d be here or planned for it. I’ve had to go on a roller coaster of a career journey.
In 2014, I graduated with a degree in civil and water engineering. When I started at my first job, I had many lofty goals about my career roadmap. But I quickly found that life isn’t straightforward. In fact, getting to where you want to be is rarely linear. Stumbling upon that thing that makes you excited to wake up and work every morning might not happen even after months — or even years — of hard work. I realised that trying many things and failing can, in the end, lead to even more potent outcomes in life’s journey than straightforward successes. That may sound like motivational talk after too many failures, but it’s true: hear me out. Consider Viagra.
In the early nineties, a group of scientists from Pfizer — a company we all know too well now — were working on trials for a drug for angina called Sildenafil. Angina is a condition in which the blood vessels carrying blood to the heart constrict, and become too narrow to get enough blood through, leading to severe chest pain and breathlessness.
It quickly became obvious that, because of how fast Sildenafil is metabolized by the body, patients would’ve had to take it at least three times a day to keep their chest pain in check. That’s way too much to expect patients to do consistently. The clinical trial was swiftly ended; no company wants to invest money into something that has a low probability of success.
Dr Ian Osterloh, a British investigator who was leading the team of Pfizer scientists, recalls,
“In one of the studies undertaken, male volunteers also reported increased erections several days after the initial dose. None of us at Pfizer thought much of this side effect at the time. I remember thinking that even if it did work, who would want to take a drug on a Wednesday to get an erection on a Saturday?” — Dr Ian Osterloh.
Serendipitously, around the same time, a lab at Johns Hopkins discovered that an enzyme that produces nitric oxide (NO), a gaseous molecule that acts on muscle cells that make up the walls of blood vessels and prompts them to relax, is present in large quantities in the nerves of a penis. It turned out that Sildenafil caused the same vessel relaxation in the expandable tissue on the penis, which fills with blood during erection, as it does in vessels by the heart. The drug was indeed helping to dilate blood vessels, just the wrong ones. When they tested it for erectile dysfunction, a bug became a feature.
“Luck has a peculiar habit of favouring those who do not depend on it.” — George S. Clason, The richest man in Babylon.
After a new set of successful clinical trials, Sildenafil was put on the market as Viagra in 1998. By 2005, a mere seven years after its launch, over 750,000 physicians prescribed Viagra to 23 million men in the U.S. alone. Between 2005 and 2016, Pfizer’s worldwide revenue of Viagra sales reached $21.7 billion.
But the story doesn’t stop there: in the past decade, a slightly modified molecule of Sildenafil became one of the key medications used to treat pulmonary hypertension, where blood vessels of the lungs become narrow and clogged, keeping sufferers from getting sufficient oxygen. The drug has gotten a third life as an effective treatment for a severe and deadly disease.
In the end, it was a happy accident. What started as a failed drug trial has become key to solving other severe conditions. But scientists only figured this out by continually finding new ways to approach existing data. They stumbled upon a happy accident or serendipity.
serendipity /ˌsɛr(ə)nˈdɪpɪti/ (noun): the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way.
When you keep trying new things, learning new skills and finding new ways of looking at old things, you increase your chances of landing on serendipity.
“…trying many things and failing can, in the end, lead to even more potent outcomes in life’s journey than straightforward successes.”
When I was a water engineer at the City of Bulawayo, a new GIS (Geographic Information Systems) department was started and I was quick to volunteer to join it despite not even knowing what GIS was. I immersed myself in everything I could get my hands on about GIS. Work internet was more reliable than what I had at home, so every day after work I’d stay in the office going through tutorials and before long; I was one of the resident experts on all things GIS.
When opportunities came; I was ready for them. When I eventually left the City of Bulawayo, I had led several GIS projects, given GIS training to tonnes of staff within the City of Bulawayo and at other local authorities across the country.
The GIS experience I gained at the City of Bulawayo was key to getting my first non-civil engineering job at RAMM technologies as a GIS analyst. And it was at RAMM that I transitioned into my first role working full time as a software developer. This was again because there was something that needed to be done. I volunteered for it before I had the knowledge and spent several months after that working round the clock to upskill.
Now armed with cross-disciplinary knowledge from civil and water engineering, GIS and software development, it was much simpler to get a job at ESRI South Africa — which had been a dream of mine for several years. Armed with that perspective, I’ve continuously been leveraging my wide experience and unique story to take advantage of opportunities and progress my career to where I am today.
“In the fields of observation, chance favours only the prepared mind.” — Louis Pasteur, Lecture, University of Lille (7 December 1854)
So if you’re feeling stuck. If you’re feeling like your life isn’t what you want it to be and you’re caught in the rat race with no way to escape. Maybe the solution is to try Viagra … I’m joking. Maybe the solution is to figure out what adjustments you can make to help you adjust your perspective and find new ways of approaching the things that have always been at your disposal.
Maybe there’s something to that pattern of patients getting erections you thought was insignificant all this time and all you need to do is discover your John Hopkins study. Maybe you don’t need something new, but you just need to apply what you already have in new, unfamiliar territory.
If you want happy accidents to occur, you need to create space for risk. To take the leap. It’s not enough to have the insight and the accident occur, accidents occur around us all the time. Serendipity requires your action because there is great courage in being okay with taking action without knowing what is possible but pursuing it, anyway. Serendipity is all around us. We just need to help it appear.
“Men of action are favored by the goddess of luck.” — George S. Clason, The richest man in Babylon.
That’s all I have for you this week. If you like the newsletter, consider sharing it with others on Twitter, WhatsApp or Facebook. Hit the thumbs up or thumbs down below to let me know what you think.
I hope I’ve given you something to think about this week and I wish you ever-increasing curiosity.
Until next week.
Average sleep duration last week: 8h 41m.
Business: I can reveal that the product I’m working on, set to launch to the first group of test users in February is called Pro Search. I share more details in time.
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I have a lot of interests so I'm always learning all kinds of things, some of which really challenge my thinking. In the Just Reflections newsletter, I'll be sharing with you a summary of the ideas that challenged my thinking recently and hopefully they will challenge yours too and we grow together.
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