Yesterday I headed off to the University of Maine at Augusta for a Faculty Development Institute. Basically it was an all day conference focused on a wide range of topics on teaching and collaborating more effectively. I went for a variety of reasons. There were some presentations that touched on the role of libraries in that process, and I was interested in learning more about ChatGPT in education, but most importantly, I went because I never know ahead of time what meeting will end up being helpful or not. All I know is that if I never go to meetings and conferences like that, I’ll never make the connections that can best serve me in my job.
Some circles talk about this using the term “luck surface area” (coined by Jason Roberts back in 2010). Basically, the more you’re out doing things in public and talking to people and working with them, the greater your odds that you’ll “be lucky.” Often it’s tempting to look at someone else’s success and say they just got there through a stroke of luck. And it’s true, happenstance sometimes plays a big role in success. But you can place yourself in a spot where you’re more likely to have that luck fall your way.
For example, back when Brandon Sanderson was just another aspiring author, there was nothing necessarily about him to make it seem likely that he’d become a behemoth in fantasy. He didn’t have some pre-made connection in the industry. But he actively worked on doing things that would make it more likely that he’d one day have a big break. He wrote many (many) words. He went to conferences. Once he was published, he blogged regularly. And on that blog, he wrote a tribute to Robert Jordan, which Jordan’s widow happened to read while she was trying to figure out who to finish The Wheel of Time. That post caught her eye, and she ultimately selected Brandon for the job.
Was Brandon lucky? Definitely. But if he hadn’t been doing the things he was doing, he never would have been able to catch that lucky break.
Personally, I just call this serendipity. (No need for surface areas) I can’t count the number of times I’ve gone to campus lunches and ended up having a discussion about something really important to my job, but which I had no clue about previously. I got to presentations and events, and I talk to people. Often, those discussions just end up being nice chats about things that don’t necessarily matter in the long run, but even then, I never know when a friendship or relationship I started at one of those events will end up helping me solve a problem later on.
It’s not that I go through life looking to see how other people can benefit me. It’s more that I recognize that there’s so much I can’t do by myself, and so the more people I’ve got on my side, the more likely it is I can accomplish the things I set out to do. This is a principle that’s at work in research, as well. You go to the shelf to get a particular book, and you happen to see an even better book right next to it that you didn’t know existed. (It’s why we shelve books by subject in the first place.) I can’t think of an area of my life that this doesn’t play a part.
So I keep going to things. Keep talking. And even if there are panels or presentations or lunches or whatevers that don’t turn out how I’d hoped, I don’t look at it as wasted time. You put yourself out there, because you never know when that lucky break is going to come along. Wouldn’t it be a shame if you’d decided to stay home that day and it just rolls by?
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