Coaxing Serendipity: How Casual Get-Togethers Drive Innovation

In his new memoir, Hitch-22, Christopher Hitchens writes candidly about the “demon lunchers of Fleet Street,” a handful of writers, artists, and cultural critics engaged in a weekly ritual dubbed the Friday Lunch. The social group began as a casual exchange of gossip, jokes, and connections, only to later emerge as an invaluable career resource for its members.The group was a distinctly male and notable gathering of London’s literary scene of the mid-1970s: Hitchens, novelist Martin Amis (who initiated the group and served as its de facto ringleader), the poets Clive James, James Fenton, and Peter Porter, literary editors Craig Raine and Terry Kilmartin, the cartoonist Mark Boxer, the critic Russell Davies, up-and-coming novelists Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes, the historian Robert Conquest, and Martin’s celebrated father Kingsley Amis.Hitchens:
The Friday lunch began to simply “occur” in the mid-1970s, and persisted into the early 1980s, and is now cemented in place in several memoirs and biographies (most memorably Clive James’s title North Face of Soho)… Between us, we were believed to “control” a lot of the reviewing space in London, and much envious and paranoid comment was made.The establishment of informal “salons” or “circles” of artists or cultural creatives dates back to the Ancient Greeks and is a common feature of several touchstone cultural movements from impressionism to abstract expressionism to beat poetry.  The free-flowing exchange of ideas in a social setting serves to encourage deeper thinking, challenge assumptions, and expand resources – crucial aspects of any creative career.

Furthermore, a consistent regular forum for discussion acts as a method to “coax serendipity” or encourage chance overlaps that lead to something exceptional: an idea that turns into a novel, the mention of a name that turns into a mentor, an acquaintance that becomes a star client.

A few tips on coaxing serendipity:

1. Gather the right people. Find a handful of thinkers but not necessarily friends. Ensure that a variety of disciplines are represented to allow for the emergence of new perspectives. Or, as Martin Amis cracked, “From now on, we should go on the basis of looks alone.”

2. Don’t dwell on making history. Do it for the love of the get-together, everything else is gravy. Hitchens writes, “There was never the intention or design that it become a ‘set’ or a ‘circle,’ and of course if there had been any such intention, the thing would have been abortive.”

3. Keep the agenda loose and social. Better conversations occur when anything goes and there’s no pressure to impress with your business savvy or career aspirations.  Hitchens notes “the importance of word games and the long, exhaustive process that makes them both live and become worthwhile.”

4. Establish consistency. Meeting frequently at a set time and location is the real secret to getting something out of any group. It also helps to have someone in charge regular attendance. In this case, Clive James “would often ring round to make sure there was a quorum.”

5. Keep it ridiculous. As Hitchens remarks, the Friday Lunch was an “end-of-the-week clearinghouse for gossip and jokes.”  The conversation was literary and intellectual but also silly and lewd.

Camaraderie can be potent. It takes some pressure off the productivity treadmill and can be a source of casual wisdom. Hitchens writes, “I learned appreciably from registering the cross-currents that underlay this apparently light but really quite serious lunch.

Scott McDowell

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Scott McDowell is a strategy consultant and a coach to new managers & first-time leaders. He wrote New Manager Handbook to help leaders in transition panic less. He also hosts a radio show called The Long Rally on WFMU.
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