Why Amazon and Netflix don’t always know best

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It’s far too easy to allow ourselves to be led around by the nose.

Amazon tells us what to buy. Netflix and Pandora suggest movies and music based on our tastes. Facebook and Google+ suggest friends to us. Twitter tells us whom to follow.

But those tools reinforce what we know already. They broaden our horizons only incrementally.

To make a creative and intellectual breakthrough that forces you to grow, I believe it’s important to find moments of serendipity – when you stumble on new ideas that seemingly lack any immediate application to your life. You won’t find those moments by allowing others to curate your life for you.

Here are a few examples of how I’ve tried to spark moments of serendipity:

1. Getting immersed in a different setting

For most of my life, I was not interested in medieval history. So I had low expectations when I joined my family on my first visit to the Bristol Renaissance Faire a few years ago. The faire re-creates the town of Bristol, England, in the year 1574, complete with period costumes, jugglers, minstrel entertainers, and a visit from the Queen of England. And as I’ve mentioned on my blog, the faire enchanted me on my first visit.

It’s not just the passion and spirit of the fairgoers that attracts me – it’s those moments of personal serendipity that occur on so many visits. Recently, by complete chance, I discovered a band known as the New Minstrel Revue, who opened my mind to the gentle and beautiful sounds of Celtic folk.

One of my favorite things to do at the faire is to walk into the Compass Rose music shop and buy whatever the store is playing at the time. It’s a total hit-and-miss proposition that has introduced me to new music I might not have heard otherwise – such as Sacred and Secular music from Renaissance Germany (a selection that I doubt Pandora would have suggested based on my musical interests).

This year I happened to be walking through the dusty Bristol streets and heard a strange, beautiful drone-like guitar sound. By simply following the siren call of the music, I discovered the Darbuki Kings playing bouzouki and drums with a belly dancer. Even better, Antone Darbuki took the time to show me how he strums an exotic sound with an open G tuning on his bouzouki strings.

I had heard of the bouzouki — but I had no appreciation for what a bouzouki could do until this chance encounter at Bristol.

2. Surfing books and magazines

As I mentioned not long ago on my blog, I enjoy finding new ideas by visiting newsstands crowded with magazines. Most larger magazine racks at stores like Barnes and Noble are organized by topic. So I take care to avoid the topics that I know will interest me and instead force myself to browse through titles that I normally do not read, like O: The Oprah Magazine. You don’t even need to buy them (although I think it’s better if you do because sometimes it takes awhile to get used to new titles) – just sit down and browse.

Similarly, I like to browse the Recently Added section of my local public library to surf new book titles. Have you ever just randomly grabbed new books off a shelf – literally without examining their covers – and sat down at a table to sift through them? Try it. Don’t cheat by reviewing the titles first. Just blindly pull them off your own Recently Added shelf and then take the time to open each book in front of you. What do you have to lose? You certainly won’t get this kind of open experience on Amazon.

Sometimes this experience (akin to surfing TV channels or the web) leads nowhere. But more often than not, I learn and appreciate perspectives different than my own.

3. Creating a river of ideas

I am quite promiscuous about adding friends and followers on Facebook, Global 14, Google+, and Twitter. And I don’t organize my online friendships in any particular way. Consequently the content appearing in my social news feeds is wide-ranging in nature. As I write this post on a Sunday morning, my Facebook news feed just opened me up to an amazingly diverse thread of ideas — ranging from an essay by Nick Burd on same-sex marriage to a suggestion to check out a Marilyn Monroe classic, Let’s Make Love (which I’ve not seen and want to now) courtesy of David Polinchock.

Sometimes the juxtaposition of seemingly disparate ideas can jar your thinking and even breed creativity.

I freely admit that my approach is wildly undisciplined. On the other hand, I like how my online relationships together form an open river of ideas whose path I cannot predict. I like leaving room for the unpredictable and random idea in my life.

Doug Brock (who has now become one of my Google+ friends) shared a similar sentiment. In response to a blog post by Melissa Parrish about content curation on Google+, Doug wrote:

I too find myself with an ever increasing number of more topic specific Circles. It’s great to be able to limit and filter what broadcasts we see commercially. The only problem I see with that is we are increasingly only exposed to viewpoints that we know match ours. I wonder what the long-term effect of that is socially. I want to limit what I see from Budweiser, but what happens when I filter my social community to only the viewpoints that match mine. I don’t have the possibility to view something that would change my mind or re-think the way I see things if I never have a conversation with someone with diverging views.

I appreciate what Doug is saying. Especially when it comes to religion and politics, we so often find it difficult to force ourselves to talk with others whose views are different from ours.

4. Being with kids

I have long advocated that the professional growth of creative directors should include spending time with kids. Children are masters of serendipity. The very young in particular have not yet learned how to segment their thinking and become set in their ways. And you do not need to be a parent to explore the world through their eyes.

In the late 1990s, before I became a parent, I taught junior high kids a weekly class at my church. But I learned as much from the kids as they learned from me. For instance, my first exposure to consumer-generated musical content came from the junior highers sharing with me the compact discs they burned, decorated, and tossed at each other like Frisbees in class.

And then they put aside their compact discs and pulled me into the front lines of a digital revolution that would, of course, disrupt the music world.

How my own child Marion has enriched my life could be the subject of many blog posts. Marion’s world exposes my wife Jan and me to a wild potpourri of interests. We never know what we are going to learn when we are with her: archeology one day, karate the next. (By participating in classes with Marion, I’ve become a lowly orange belt, while Marion long ago became a junior black belt. She can teach me.)

Let me give you one more example that is a bit more subtle: through Jan’s family, we are fortune enough to have access to a small summer cottage nestled in the Wisconsin north woods 400 miles away from Chicago. Jan’s mother has been visiting the summerhouse since the 1920s, and Jan all her life. Until we became parents, we’d usually drive to the summer cabin by making one fast drive on the interstate.

But then Marion was born. As any parent can attest, you don’t make road trips with infants without making frequent stops to rest and attend to your baby. And baby management isn’t fun at truck stops and gas stations. So by necessity we changed the way we traveled. We found little towns where we could stop and find cleaner and more appropriate places to rest with an infant. We lingered in each town to give Marion (and ourselves) a break from the car.

In doing so, we began exploring charming little towns we would have otherwise missed, like Stevens Point, with its lazy river walk, or Colby, home of world-famous Colby cheese. And now that Marion is older, she has her own opinions on where we should stop and what we should do. She has made us remember how important the journey is.

You can find serendipity through children in other ways: check out kids’ magazines like Kiki and Muse. Volunteer some of your time to help out at the junior room of your local library. Then just hang out with kids. Be patient, and those break-through moments will come.

Scanning magazine racks and book shelves. Immersing myself in a different world. Creating a river of diverse ideas on my social networks. Being with kids. Those are four ways I try to spark a bit of serendipity in my life. How do you do it?

4 thoughts on “Why Amazon and Netflix don’t always know best

  1. Wonderful piece of writing and I couldn\’t agree more. I cannot be more of who I am unless I step out of what I do, serendipity is the catalyst for that. For me anyways, the most unique ideas tend to come from the most obscure places. Nice article, well done.

    • Thank you! It\’s such a thrill when an inspirational idea comes from an unexpected place, isn\’t it? I\’d love to hear about how you have found those moments of serendipity.

  2. David,

    Great post. You continue to bring things to life based on your personal experiences. Having spent 9 years running bookstores I can completely relate to browsing the shelves. You have made a wonderful connection from that experience to raising a child. I\’m less inclined to chalk it up to serendipity, but lean toward karmic connections. Perhaps they are they are interchangeable. The what takes a back seat to the outcome.


    • Great point about karma, Steve! Meantime I was in Anderson\’s Bookshop of Downers Grove just a few nights ago and happily browsed titles randomly.

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