Need a creative solution? Get off the net.

This post takes excerpts from Steven Johnson’s book, Where Good Ideas Come From

I’m a huge advocate of the creative potential of the web. I spend way too much time online and always struggle to stop reading interesting articles of a night. With that in mind, I’ve given myself a bit of a shock writing this piece.

Let me tell you a quick story: a Persian fairytale,  ‘The Three Princes of Serendip‘. Bear with me, it’s going somewhere.

The Three Princes of Serendip

There was once a king (who turned out to be a bit nutty), Giaffer. He ruled over Serendippo, a fictional country in the far east. He had three sons who he cared for greatly, and as such, wanted the best education for them. He called upon the best scholars from around the world to teach his sons.

After years of learning he tested his sons by offering each of them the throne. Because of their great knowledge, each refused; their father was obviously a more suitable ruler.

Although the king was impressed by his sons’ great wisdom, he decided they had become far too sheltered. In a huge douchebag move he feigned anger and banished them from the kingdom, ‘WTF dad?’. So the sons walked the world and continually stumbled upon the unexpected, mostly because of their humongous, oversized brains. This goes on for some time, and then like all fairytales there is a happy ending.


In 1754, Horace Walpole, who Wikipedia tells me was a man of letters, read ‘The Three Princes of Serendip’. Seeing how the protagonists were “always making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of”, he coined the word ‘Serendipity’ to mean exactly that: “The occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way”.

Novelist John Barth describes serendipity  and Serendip in eloquent terms, “You don’t reach Serendip by plotting a course for it. You have to set out in good faith for elsewhere and lose your bearing serendipitously”.

Serendipity and Creativity

As Steven Johnson explains in his book, the history of innovation and creativity is rife with serendipitous discovery.

Take for example, Parisian obstetrician Stephan Tarnier. Tarnier worked at a local maternity ward and one day took time off to visit the nearby zoo. While at the zoo Tarnier came across an incubator for hatchlings. Upon witnessing the warm conditions in which the chicks thrived, he had a revelation that would change modern medicine forever. Tarnier went on to invent the infant incubator, a device which has arguably had the largest effect on average life-span in modern history, all because he went to the zoo.

Then there is Archimides, who figured out how to measure the volume of complex objects while in the bath (reportedly shouting eureka).  The mathematician Henri Poincare, who never made an important discovery at his desk, found ideas ‘Rose in crowds’ while going for his daily walk. Or Friedrich Kekulé, a german chemist who discovered the structure of Benzene while taking a nap and dreaming about Ouroboros, a mythological serpent that eats its own tail.

Going for a walk, taking a bath, visiting the zoo and having a nap are not considered ‘normal’ activities of the creative genius, yet the mundane or irrelevant often inspires lateral solutions.

Serendipity and the Web

If the serendipity comes from not really looking for anything in particular, then the internet can have a serious effect on creativity. The targeted and framed nature of the web, particularly Google, means that you get exactly what you’re looking for, nothing more. Even when you search for something novel or unusual, the search is framed by your online ‘filter bubble‘. Even the seemingly random nature of StumbleUpon is framed by your past likes, preferences, cookies and advertising dollars.

William McKeen, a journalist and scholar, illustrates the pitfalls of the web: 

“Think about the library. Do people browse anymore? We have become such a directed people. We can target what we want, thanks to the Internet. Put a couple of key words into a search engine and you find – with an irritating hit or miss here and there – exactly what you’re looking for. It’s efficient, but dull. You miss the time-consuming but enriching act of looking through shelves, of pulling down a book because the title interests you, or the binding. Inside, the book might be a loser, a waste of the effort and calories it took to remove it from its place and then return. Or it might be a dark chest of wonders, a life-changing first step into another world, something to lead your life down a path you didn’t know was there”

I am not suggesting that creative people should/do not use the web, it is an amazing tool to gather information, perspectives, facts and fictions. Simply that sometimes ‘more information’ is not the answer. You need the right environment to play with and combine the information you already have, an environment that the web doesn’t provide.

Stay Serendipitous

So next time you strive for a creative solution, remember the three princes of Serendip. They had the worlds greatest scholars teach them, just like you have Google.

But to find serendipity you have to stop looking for what you’re trying to find (how wanky does that sound). Whether that means having your king-father banish you, sabotaging your laptop or just going for a walk, I suggest getting off the web. At least for a few minutes.


Edit: After writing this, I came across this very recently written piece in The Economist, In Search of Serendipity. What are the chances?

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  • Matt

    The solution isn’t to not use the web, but to use it wisely. You compared searching Google to pulling a book off the shelves, but you never explored what the web equivalent to strolling through the crowds would be. Take a stroll through a collection of links such as Hacker News, Reddit, kottke, or any of the myriad assortment of random collections, and there you’ll find your serendipity.

  • shadowmask (forgive me I was young)

    It is a false premise to assume that just because it is easier to find what we’re looking for means we only find what we’re looking for, and while it is true that the internet enables us to find more information faster, it does not mean that serendipitous discoveries are harder come across.

    The author suggests that modern serendipity is more rare because we are confined by our website preferences, our choice of subreddit, our stumbleupon categories, but I fail to see how such choices are any different from searching by section for information in a library. There’s still a selection bias, the only difference being that it’s listed topically and then alphabetically, rather than subject leading to subject organically, as though it were a train of thought rather that simple information. And the same people who once randomly browsed library aisles now click ‘random article’ on wikipedia and see where it takes them. Maybe a title will pique their interest, or an image catch their eye, but the fundamentals are all but identical.

    Even searching for a subject will take you a thousand places yo never intended to go. I would argue that libraries (and by extension, the real world) are in fact worse for serendipity, because if you know, generally, what you’re looking for, then all you have to do in find that topic and you will never find anything but information under that heading. But when you google something, literally anything even hinted at on the page can be laid out before you in a hearbeat.

    Yes, information on the internet is better categorized, by at the same time it is ever more interconnected, and a few links can and will take you beyond the scope of what you were ever interested in knowing.

    His stories of famous people having revalations while engaged in seemingly unrelated activities: Archimedes’ bath, Tarnier’s incubator, Kekule’s dream, all of these are nice, but in no way has anything changed. We still bathe, we still go to zoos, we still dream. The only difference is that we have every peice of information ever recorded at our finger tips at all times, and all of it, all of it freely available to anyone with the most trifling of curiosities.

    Serendipity is definitely not dying.