Searching for serendipity

It is wonderful that technology allows us to be so easily connected to all the new research and ideas out there, but frustrating that it is so hard to find time to actually digest all this information. Lately I have been working out how best to build reading time in to my week. Assuming this is true for others, I thought I would share my efforts so far …

Acceptance - I found twitter overwhelming at first because I wanted to read everything and got frustrated that this was never going to be possible. Now I have got the hang of it and accept that having a sense of what the key issues are and getting to read one or two short articles is enough.

Necessity - I am currently working on a series of lectures for the Advising Donors module of the University of Kent’s Masters in Philanthropy. As well as the pleasure of teaching the students, this has given me a great incentive to read all those books and reports I have gathered because I want to read them but somehow struggled to find the time to do so. There is nothing like a deadline and a driving need for creating space in your schedule.

Help – Step up the wonderful Kathryn Redway. I took one of her rapid reading courses which has given me some very effective tools and strategies for quickly tackling longer reports and strategy documents. I now have a slot in my diary to read them and permission to be ruthless. The upshot is things don’t sit in my ‘to read’ folder on my desktop but actually get read.

I have made good progress but, as is often the case, solving one problem has created space for a new one. The reading I am doing is focussed on my areas of interest: I follow like-minded people and subscribe to mainly UK-based bulletins about philanthropy, charity, funding. There has been lots in the media lately about echo chambers such as this piece in the Guardian (see link below) where users of twitter interact most with those who share their views. Tom Stafford, a cognitive scientist at Sheffield University explains that “homophily, where we hang out with people like us, is an ancient human trait, resulting from our basic psychology.” Whilst this is great for a sense of connectedness, it can lead to narrow thinking.

So my next challenge is how to widen my reading to create the space for opposing views and serendipity – the random connections, insights and advances that come from outside my sphere of interest and beyond people like me. How do I do that without getting even more overwhelmed with all that there is to read in the world? And can serendipity come through effort? I have found some encouragement from research conducted by a Dr Erdelez who found that serendipity is something that people do so it is a skill that can be learned. Those who see things through a narrow focus and tend to stick to their to-do lists experience less serendipity. Whereas others, the ‘super-encounterers’, report that happy surprises popped up wherever they looked.