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Accidental successes are legendary but they should be celebrated for their intentionality.

Key Skills Include Awareness, Curiosity, Positivity and Open-Mindedness

From an early age, people are trained for success. That training overlooks the value of accidental success and the skills to recognize potential success and pursue it.

Accidental successes frequently occur when something goes wrong in the pursuit of success. The famous painting Whistler’s Mother came about when the artist’s model failed to show up and he asked his mother to stand in. The painting shows James Whistler’s 67-year-old mother sitting in a chair because she had trouble standing.

There are many examples of accidental success. A Navy-trained radio electrician accidentally discovered the microwave oven when a candy bar melted in his pocket after walking by radar equipment.

Scottish physician Alexander Fleming left messy petri dishes in a laboratory sink during a long vacation and returned to discover a mold had killed several strains of bacteria. That accidental finding was compounded when an Australian pathologist and a biochemist applied Fleming’s finding to create the wonder drug we call penicillin. All three were awarded the Nobel Prize.

Two U.S. and Chinese table tennis players struck up a friendship after the American missed a bus at a major tournament in Japan. Their friendship thawed frosty relations and blossomed into ping-pong diplomacy leading to President Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972.

The last crucial vote to ratify the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote occurred in the Tennessee legislature. Harry T. Burn, a 24-year-old legislator, cast the deciding ‘yes’ vote after receiving a note from his mother encouraging him to “be a good boy”.

What distinguishes these accidental success stories is the ability to recognize success. The electrician could have cursed at the goo in his shirt pocket. Instead he assessed what had happened and saw its potential. The pathologist and biochemist could have easily looked past Fleming’s petri dishes. Instead they explored how the mold Fleming accidentally discovered could be used to save lives. Whistler could have thrown a fit when his model flaked out. Instead he asked his mother to sit and created a masterpiece.

An important truth is that accidental success isn’t accidental

Looking for Accidental Success
“Many ideas surface in the strangest ways, often when they are least expected. Sometimes they seem to pop up almost by accident,” explains a website aptly named Accidental Discoveries. “The accidental discovery is triggered by chaos and contradictions, rather than by order and logic. When open-minded people read, listen or watch, they often find things that catch their eye, leading them off into other areas of inquiry.”

People most likely to discover accidental success are open-minded, observant and practical. Other useful characteristics include creativity, energy and an entrepreneurial spirit. Positivity helps people see options instead of failure or disappointment.

Of course it helps to have a frame of reference. Whistler was an accomplished painter. Fleming was a doctor and his collaborators were medically trained, too. The microwave pioneer understood the power of radio waves.

Even when a frame of reference isn’t clear, opportunity can crop up, as shown by the two tennis players and the young Tennessee lawmaker. They saw past the moment. Maybe they didn’t realize how opportune the moment was but they didn’t shrink from pursuing the opportunity that was present.

How to Train for Accidental Success
There aren’t college or trade school courses in achieving accidental success. It’s pretty much DIY. Reading a lot on varied subjects prepares your brain for fertile thinking. Experience with trial and error is eye-opening and habit-forming. A can-do, problem-solving attitude is useful as well.

Sometimes all it takes is awareness. Archimedes put two and two together when he climbed into a full tub and noticed the water he displaced equaled his body weight. Isaac Newton observed apples falling to the ground, which inspired his law of gravitation. John Kellogg was experimenting with wheat meal for patients in a sanitarium when he left dough on a counter that turned by the next morning into what we call Corn Flakes.

Accidental success, as it turns out, isn’t just accidental. An accidental discovery only turns into a success by experimentation, innovation and effort. Accidental success isn’t unintentional.

Artificial intelligence can’t predict accidental success. It’s takes human ingenuity to convert something unexpected into something indispensable. The door to ingenuity is openness to new ideas or different ways to approach a subject.

Accidental success doesn’t mean there won’t be persistent failure beforehand. A random discovery or sudden insight is the start of a journey, not the end.

Pride or stubbornness can be obstacles to finding the path to a useful application of a random discovery. If stuck, ask for help or other points of view to add perspective. If your spirit flags, seek inspiration from books and encouragement from friends.

An important truth is that accidental success isn’t accidental. It takes effort, organization and probably a sense of humor. Newton’s observation of a falling apple could have been just a random moment. The contemplation that occurred afterward is what led Newton to formulate his law of gravity. History gives the apple too much credit. Newton’s accidental success was very intentional.

Zoom’s Not-So Accidental Success Story
The explosive growth of Zoom video conferencing is usually credited to the accidental occurrence of the coronavirus pandemic that shut down offices but not work. While the pandemic gave Zoom a boost, the platform was already a hit with users because of another form of success. It is an example of intentional success.

Drawing on dreams when he was in college, Eric Yuan founded Zoom in 2011. By 2017, two years before COVID struck, his startup had reached the unicorn level of $100 million in investor funding. As the pandemic shut down offices, Yuan’s success appeared to mirror many accidental success stories.

Zoom outpaced other platforms because it was free, mobile-user friendly and based in the cloud. Yuan didn’t just stumble onto those features. He drew them from his experience working at WebEx and listening to customer complaints. He asked WebEx to build a new model and, according to Yuan, the company said no.

Armed with his version of a falling apple or a moldy petri dish, Yuan set out on his own to develop a video conferencing platform with features users wanted. Yuan’s success came from finding practical solutions to problems no one else was willing to fix.

His timing couldn’t have been better. The pandemic was an accidental accelerant but Zoom’s success was more intentional than accidental.