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Accidents are serendipity at work

An accident has its consequences. Accidents happen despite our best intent and serious efforts. The mention of the word ‘accident’ conjures up unpleasant thoughts from our memory banks – torn limbs, crushed metal, dented surfaces.

While this is a natural reaction to our impulsive recollection, may I invite you to consider other kinds of accidents. Accidents that has brought us a smile and made a difference to our lives.

Good Accidents Happen Too

Here is something that happened in 1946. Raytheon, the company was into manufacturing military equipment in the US. Percy Spencer, a young scientist had a reputation of being a problem solver. He had designed sophisticated military equipment that actually caused artillery shells from the enemy explode before they hit the aircrafts of the US military. He was armed with an array of patents, thanks to his inquisitive mind.

Percy being particularly fond of squirrels and chipmunks, often carried a peanut bar that he could share with them. One fortuitous day in 1946, while working on electromagnetic waves, he put his hands into his pocket only to realise that the peanut bar he had saved up for the squirrels had melted!

Puzzled about what happened, he ran a couple of tests with eggs and electromagnetic waves instead. The eggs exploded on his face! He tried the same experiment with corn.The corn popped ! So was born the microwave oven!!

There are several such great inventions that have happened as a result of an accident. Each is a fabulous story by itself. Take for instance, the pacemaker. New York engineer Wilson Greatbatch invented the world’s first implantable heart pacemaker – but he didn’t mean to.

While trying to build a device to record heartbeats in 1956, he accidentally installed the wrong type of resistor into his prototype – which promptly began to emit regular electrical pulses.

Realising these pulses were recapitulating the electrical activity of a normal heartbeat, Greatbatch immediately saw the potential of his device. After two years of refinements, his design for a pacemaker that could be implanted into the heart was patented in 1960 and soon went into production. Life-saving descendants of this first device now improve the lives of over half a million patients with slow heartbeats every year.

Or for that matter, Penicillin. In 1929, Alexander Flemming came back from a vacation to find that green mould had contaminated his Petri dish and killed bacteria he was growing. He realised it prevented more bacteria from forming. He wondered what that mould might be? In a decade, it went on to completely change the way we treated wounds and illnesses. During World War II, penicillin production ramped up so much that by the invasion of Normandy in June 1944, companies were producing 100 billion units of penicillin per month.

Experience As A Teacher

The list of accidents leading to inventions is an interesting list. From X-Ray to Coco Cola. The Birth Control Pill to Viagra to Match Sticks. Teflon to Champagne. They all happened because accidents happen! And their inventors stayed with the accidents, and examined their experiences. All of them were benefiting from an unpredictable force responsible for some of history’s most striking breakthroughs: serendipity.

In pharmaceutical giant Pfizer’s laboratories in Kent, a failed treatment for angina accidentally became a billion-dollar erectile dysfunction blockbuster, and the world’s most famous blue pill. Incidentally, the 2007 ‘Ig’ Nobel Prize, awarded annually for that year’s most useless research, was awarded to three Argentinian scientists who discovered that Viagra have actually helped hamsters recover faster from jet-lag !

Or take the case of Percy Spencer and the microwave. That electromagnetic waves generate heat was known to people for more than a decade before the accident! Yet, it was Percy who stopped and prodded around. If you were Alexander Flemming and just got back from a vacation and see your carefully curated bacterium dead, would you be aghast or stay with whats happened?

American educator, David Kolb’s thinking on learning from our experiences has formed a key tenet of research on psychology at work. By extension, construction and curation of real experiences in the regular flow of work for business leaders is at the nucleus of the study. Jacobson and Rudy, building on the work of David Kolb wrote a book titled “Open To Outcome”.

They put together five questions as a way of learning from experiences. You may want to give these questions a go, when accidents happen to you!

Did you notice? (Feel, notice, think…)

Why did that happen?( Really why? .)

Does that happen in life? (Generalise)

Why does that happen? (Establish the rule. Identify the trend)

How can you use that? (Plan for the future)

A Curious Mind Challenges The Status Quo

In every case, it is always a hustler, a curious mind, that refused to rest, rather come up with a bunch of questions that helped build on the outcomes when accidents happen! A curious mind with an abundance of courage and doses of humility, is one potent cocktail.

I am often reminded of the quote, “Millions saw the apple fall, but Newton was the only one who asked why”. Newton asked that question in 1665. Imagine the number of heads apples would have fallen accidentally on, before that! I leave you with that thought.

What happens when an accident happens, can leave you nursing a bump in the head or be known for the theory of gravity! So, the next time the word ‘accident’ pop ups in your head – what do you recollect most ? Do you question the occurrence and experience serendipity at play?

There is a saying I grew up listening to from my grandfather: man ke haare haar hai, man ke jeete jeet (मन के हारे हार है, मन के जीते जीत।)

It’s all in an attitude !

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Disclaimer

Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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