Cultivating serendipity

Is it possible to organise your life in a way that maximises the chances of happy accidents?

Serendipity, besides being a wonderful word, is a useful concept. First coined by Horace Walpole – son of Britain’s first Prime Minister – in 1754, the sociologist Robert K. Merton traced its evolving definition, from “finding something you weren’t looking for” to its modern usage. That definition is still usefully vague, but it’s come to mean something like “happy accidents” or “unexpected benefits” – chance events that lead to fortunate outcomes.

Chance discoveries have played a part in countless scientific advancements and inventions. Although scientists sometimes prefer to pretend otherwise, and downplay the role of chance, it’s reasonable to credit serendipity with the discovery of penicillin (Fleming returned from holiday to find mouldy samples in his lab sink), X-rays (Röntgen stumbled on them while playing with cathode ray tubes), the anti-motion-sickness drug Dramamine (the researchers were testing it as an anti-allergy drug, and a trial participant happened to mention that it cleared up her travel sickness), and countless other important discoveries.

But if serendipity is the result of chance, does that mean it’s out of our control? Are we just at the whims of fate? Can we organise our lives to be more conducive to these serendipitous benefits?

Three factors govern the supply of serendipity in our lives and the extent to which we notice and benefit from that serendipity:

  1. Supply – how many opportunities we encounter
  2. Response – whether we notice those opportunities and how we respond to them
  3. Growth – whether and how we internalise the result of our encounters with serendipity

Our supply of interesting opportunities is certainly within our control. Most straightforwardly, we could deliberately put ourselves into situations of extreme novelty: travelling, for example, or seeking out new people to meet, or reading unfamiliar materials. It’s also possible to introduce randomness into what might otherwise be routine, as the writer Robin Sloan has described in his own writing process. However you do it, putting yourself in front of a steady stream of new things – increasing your supply of novelty – will increase the chances of encountering unexpected benefits.

But we’re also surrounded at all times by unnoticed novelty, which links to the second factor: the extent to which we notice and respond positively to novel situations. There are countless ways to respond poorly to novelty. We can ignore it; we can notice it but greet it with indifference; we can fear it; we can attack it, as we might if it runs counter to our existing beliefs. All of these responses ensure the snuffing out of serendipity. The only response that allows for serendipity is improvisation: embracing novelty and making it a part of what you do. The anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson wrote:

“Adaptation comes out of encounters with novelty that may seem chaotic… Ambiguity is the warp of life, not something to be eliminated. Learning to savour the vertigo of doing without answers, or… making do with fragmentary ones, opens up the pleasures of recognising and playing with pattern, finding coherence within complexity, sharing within multiplicity.”

But this is hard; hard in general, and harder as we get older and more established. Again, Bateson writes:

“Wealth and power are obstacles to learning. People who don’t wear shoes learn the languages of people who do, not vice versa. Given a choice, few will choose the reversal of status that is involved in being ignorant and being a learner.”

That willingness to adopt the posture of the learner influences the third factor: the extent to which we grow as a result of our encounters with serendipity. Even if we improvise in changing circumstances, we can fail to adapt as a result of that improvisation; we can return once more to our old ways once the moment passes. But, equally, we can choose to adapt, to grow and to learn. If we do, we can create a positive feedback loop, where our response to novelty itself produces more novelty. Serendipity is far from a chance encounter. It’s the inevitable result of our becoming broader, more varied, more interesting, more interested people – and the cause of it, too.

Further reading

Robert K. Merton and Elinor Barber. “The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity”. Princeton University Press, 2011

Mary Catherine Bateson. “Peripheral Visions: Learning Along the Way”. Harper Collins, 1994