A friend had just received an inscrutable error message. Err = 8008, it read, entirely unhelpfully. What mysterious problem was there this time? He'd set his heart on the fourth season of HBO's hit series Entourage that evening, and now the download was stalled.
By John Hagel III, John Seely Brown, and Lang Davison at HBR
Then he realized: What if he Googled the error message? Sure enough, an answer was to be found on the Apple support wiki, and soon he was watching season four on the family laptop.
It's a small example perhaps. But it's symbolic of powerful new abilities individuals have acquired in the world of pull. These play out at three levels. The first enables us to access what we need when we need it — as when we transform previously annoying error messages into vital information. Particularly on the Internet, many of us have already begun to take this first level of pull for granted.
But what if we don't have an error message to enter into a search engine? As the big shift takes hold, and the world becomes ever less predictable, many times we're no longer certain what to look for or what questions to ask. That's where a second level of pull becomes more useful: the ability to attract people and resources you didn't previously know existed. Some percentage of these, once you encounter them, turn out to be relevant and valuable — just what you were looking for. This level of pull works through serendipity rather than search. Social networks are prime spots for serendipity to play out as we unexpectedly encounter friends of friends or even total strangers that ultimately prove to be helpful.
The first two levels of pull — the ability to access and attract — are ultimately static. They assume that the people and resources we need already exist and that the challenge is to find or discover them. Yet each of us may need to further develop our own personal and professional skills before we can even recognize how best to access and attract what we need and want. Said differently, we need to master a third level of pull — the ability to pull from within ourselves the insight and performance needed to achieve our potential and help other people do the same.
What follows are four broad ways each of us can use these three levels of pull to increase our personal success:
1. Make your passion your profession. Do you love what you do? In today's economy just having a job is cause enough to be thankful. But the pace of change keeps none of us safe: a more uncertain world requires working harder to keep our professional skills competitive. Since most of us put intense effort only into those things that provide us meaning and emotional engagement, we must make our passions our professions or the world will pass us by.
2. Expand — and engage — the edges of your social network. You're probably on Facebook, LinkedIn, or some other social network by now. But how adventurous are you there? Serendipity works best when we extend the edges of our social networks. People on these edges represent "weak ties" connecting us to new insight, experiences, and capabilities that provoke us to improve our own game. Over time, these edge connections become part of our core network, transforming that core in deep yet unexpected ways.
3. Participate in spikes. As we begin to pursue our passions, something remarkable starts to happen. While a few of us will choose to remain in, or even migrate to, remote geographic areas because of our passion for certain physical locations, many more of us will be drawn to emerging spikes of complementary talent in densely settled geographic areas. Social networks in virtual space will amplify the forces of pull being generated in spikes as our passions motivate us to seek out people who can help us get better faster. 4. Maximize return on attention. Hearing these recommendations, some readers will ask how any of us will have enough time to expand our networks and explore talent spikes. Aren't we time-constrained already? Yet by adopting new tools and services we can all improve our "return on attention" — the value we get in return for the time spent looking for what we want and need. Search tools help improve this value immensely. But serendipity tools may prove even more helpful as they connect us to people and resources we don't yet know exist.
What about you? Would you accept a "friend" request on a social network from someone you'd never met? In what ways have you noticed serendipity at work in your own life and career? Have you found ways to shape serendipity to increase the quantity and quality of unexpected encounters?