Principle #8 – Serendipity

Exploring the science of Serendipity

I’ve always been in the right place at the right time, of course I steered myself there

—Bob Hope


Swiss psychologist Carl Jung coined the term synchronicity to describe meaningful coincidences—when events are not connected by causality, yet we take them to be meaningfully associated with one another. His essential point is that we humans see meaning in one instance and randomness in another based largely on our subjective personal experiences and beliefs. So, a meaningful coincidence is an event that speaks to something inside us rather than to some external causal connection.


Scientists have come to call this confirmation bias, our capacity to find in the world validation for the beliefs that we already hold, and sometimes hold dear. But what I think is quite interesting about serendipity, one of my ten principles of building a Luck MindsetÔ, is the underlying experience of interpreting a situation in a way that makes it meaningful and perhaps even motivates us to act in particular ways. So long as our experiences of synchronicity lead us toward, rather than away from, further investigation and learning, they may have an interesting role to play in increasing serendipity.


It’s that additional factor—the inclination to further investigation and learning—that ultimately separates serendipity from synchronicity. Serendipity is instructive or repeatable and not just a matter of mere coincidence.


Horace Walpole, the Earl of Oxford, wrote a letter in 1754 to his distant relation Horace Mann, recounting the Persian fairytale of the 7 Princes of Serendip. In this fable, the titular heroes are always making astonishing discoveries “by accident and sagacity, and of things which they were not in search of”.  What is astonishing of Walpole’s definition, is that it emphasizes accident, sagacity and things they were NOT in search of”.


Serendipity may be synonymous with accidental discovery, but it is impossible to achieve without a keen eye, skill and the wisdom to recognize and then investigate what has been stumbled upon.


We have some amazing examples of serendipitous discoveries in science. We need look no further than Fleming’s discovery of penicillin. These were not possible without a measure of intentional action, but they also required a learned ability to notice and recognize novelty and then explain it. Fleming’s discovery of penicillin in 1928 was triggered by a spore of penicillium fungus contaminating his petri dish while he was growing staphylococcus bacteria. Now, it was an accident that the mold spores landed in the dish. But the discovery was serendipitous in several ways. First, had Fleming not been cultivating bacteria, he wouldn’t have had the opportunity to notice the stray mold spore. Furthermore, had Fleming not had a deep and full understanding of how bacteria develops—and this is the element of sagacity—it’s unlikely he would have even noticed the antibiotic properties of the penicillium and therefore develop what was, at the time, the single most important advance in health technology in the twentieth century.


You cannot plan a serendipitous discovery or event. What you can plan is careful work that will probabilistically lead to discovery, and you can also plan to track well the processes that are in play. Be an astute and conscientious observer, make room for hunches, expect some mistakes, and work collaboratively to facilitate success.


I’ve come to think that there are three variants of serendipitous occurrences—three types of Serendipity, if you will. Identifying the three different variants of Serendipity and what we can do more of to manifest them is as important as understanding what is not Serendipity but just regular discovery.


Serendipity Type A: You are actively looking for a solution for a problem. You find something else in an unexpected place that solves that problem (think of getting a flat tire, and then a tow truck happens to drive by and helps you out).


Serendipity Type B: You are actively seeking a solution for a problem. You find in an expected place something that you were not looking for and that solves for an entirely different problem (think of how Penicillin or Post-it Notes were discovered).


Serendipity Type C: You are NOT actively seeking a solution for a problem. However, you stumble upon something that you were not actually looking for and which is in an unexpected place. However, you are open to it, curious enough to investigate it with a keen eye; you apply knowledge (maximize its potential) and in so doing realize it can solve another entirely different problem that you were not even looking to solve. (Think of Newton sitting under a tree and discovering gravity after an apple fell on his head.)


I happen to think that Type C is Serendipity in its truest form, the absolutely unanticipated thing upon which one stumbles, accompanied by the ability to recognize and capitalize on it. For all that we have been told over the years by parents and teachers about looking for a certain something in the right place, I invite you to consider that solutions to problems you’re not currently trying to solve might be discovered in the most unexpected places.


When you are in a moment that feels serendipitous, how do you direct your energy?


What can you do to enable each of the three types of Serendipity?


How can we repeatedly put ourselves in the right place at the right time? How, like Bob Hope, can we steer ourselves there?

(Visited 8 times, 1 visits today)

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *