Harnessing Serendipity at Work (and Elsewhere), This Summer and Always

…you don’t reach Serendip by plotting a course for it. You have to set out in good faith for elsewhere and lose your bearings…serendipitously.

— John Barth, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor

Think back to the events leading up to securing your first professional position (or, for that matter, an important personal or professional relationship, too). If you’re like most, your first real position plunked you miles from where you thought you’d land. Chances are, even if you weren’t totally enamoured with that position (or relationship) at the start, it helped get you where you are today (and, hopefully, that’s a good and satisfying place). Chances also are, your first position came your way thanks to at least a little luck and good timing. Or do you prefer to credit chance, synchronicity or mere coincidence that you were in the right place, at the right time, for the right job/to meet the right person? Personally, when I reflect on my career path, I whole-heartedly acknowledge serendipity. I certainly wasn’t planning a career as a speaker and writer, but that’s exactly what happened. How about you?

Consider these definitions below and decide for yourself just how much serendipity may have played a part in your professional (and personal) destiny, in the beginning of your career and through the years that followed.

The Oxford Dictionary declares serendipity as: “The faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries”. Wikipedia uses more words to essentially say the same: “…the effect by which one accidentally discovers something fortunate, especially while looking for something else entirely.” And thanks to my trusty Chambers Dictionary of Etymology–love that book!–we learn that the term serendipity was coined in 1754 by English author Horace Walpole (1717 – 1797), from the title of the Persian fairy tale, “Three Princes of Serendip”, whose heroes “were always making discoveries by accident and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of (Letter by Walpole, 28 January, 1754). FYI, Serendip was an old name for Ceylon (Sri Lanka), from Arabic Sarandib. Walpole went on to explain that the princes’ ability to manifest “accidental sagacity” and good fortune was closely related to their intelligence, cleverness and reasoning.

So, with Walpole’s further reflections in mind, crediting a little serendipity for some of your professional or personal good fortune and destiny through the years does not mean the “gods” or “princes” get all the glory…you get to claim some, too…by way of your own sagacity (gifted discernment, acute-mindedness, practical wisdom), intelligence, cleverness, reasoning, powers of observation and willingness to take action on what presents before you.

What wonderful job opportunities have come your way, when you were least expecting? What treasured people have entered (or re-entered, after many years absence) your life, professionally, or otherwise, thanks to a little serendipity? What professional discoveries have you made, serendipitously?

Here are a few serendipitous discoveries–some silly and superfluous, perhaps, others tremendously important or useful–to ponder:

1. Silly Putty, by James Wright, on the way to solving another problem: finding a rubber substitute for the United States during World War II.

2. Penicillin, by Alexander Fleming. He failed to disinfect cultures of bacteria when leaving for his vacation, only to find them contaminated with Penicillium molds, which killed the bacteria.

3. Sildenafil Citrate (Viagra), an anti-impotence drug. It was initially studied for use in hypertension and angina pectoris. Phase I clinical trials under the direction of Ian Osterloh suggested that the drug had little effect on angina, but induced marked penile erections (so, thanks to Osterloh, we all now have plenty of Email SPAM on this product!).

4. Law of Gravity, thanks to Sir Isaac Newton’s contemplation of the famed apple falling from a tree, his musing about the nature of gravitation was born.

5. X rays, by Wilhelm Roentgen. Interested in investigating cathodic ray tubes, he noted that some fluorescent papers in his lab were illuminated at a distance although his apparatus had an opaque cover.

6. The first European to see the coast of North America was reputedly Bjarni Herjolfsson, who was blown off course by a storm in 985 or 986 while trying to reach Greenland.

7. Christopher Columbus was looking for a new way to India in 1492 and wound up landing in The Americas. Native Americans were therefore called Indians.

And so, especially considering point 6 & 7, you get my drift (no pun intended!)…that many a professional can discover something tremendously important, for their organization or for themselves, when least expected.

As cases in point, here are a couple of my own serendipitous tales to tell–one professional, the other personal:

Professional Serendipity: Years ago, when I first started out in my entrepreneurial speaking career, I agreed to volunteer on an advisory committee for a well-known annual women’s conference. The first meeting was held in a local hotel. I was early, noticed an intriguing business publication in the lobby and took it to the meeting room for a browse, while awaiting the arrival of the other committee members (none of whom I’d yet met). As I read–still alone in the room–a “scathingly brilliant” idea came to me that I should make my introductions to the editor of this publication, on the off chance that they might be interested in my monthly contributions (at that time, I’d yet to write anything for publication, but had kicked the idea around). The first woman to arrive, breaking my seclusion, was very pleasant and gregarious. We immediately chatted easily and candidly. I found myself showing her the publication and sharing my excitement about pursuing the editor the very next day. She smiled broadly and listened with interest and responded, “Well, you don’t have to wait until tomorrow, Nina. I’m the editor of this publication and I’d love to talk with you about coming on board as a columnist!” Needless to say, I was over-the-moon at my good fortune not expected and, from that, went on to write monthly articles for this publication (with pay and all!) for several years. What else could that be but serendipity???

Personal Serendipity: On my return flight from a speaking engagement (for the World Council of Credit Unions/WOCCU, in Calgary, July, 2008), I had what I thought, at the time, was the misfortune of sitting next to a pre-school girl, named Aimee. Before we’d even left the tarmac I was plotting how I could negotiate a different seat, rather than be held hostage for four hours by a worming, squirming, fidgety tot. No luck. Plane was full. Would have to tough it out. Through the takeoff she was impressively composed and sedate. When the seatbelt sign went out, she whipped down her table, yanked out her colouring/activity book from her mini knapsack and began to colour away. In no time flat she asked if I’d like to help. So sweet and earnest was her invitation, I couldn’t help but say yes. And so we began to colour and seriously discuss the best shades of marker to use on the subject’s hair, dress, etc. She couldn’t find a yellow in her mess of markers. Nina to the rescue! I always have at least two yellow highlighters floating around the bottom of my purse. Well, wasn’t I her hero from that point on–especially when I said she could keep my extra. Aimee’s activity book included the most basic of ABC/spelling exercises, as well as arithmetic. When we got bored of colouring, we went on to spelling, addition and subtraction. Well she won my heart. So bright, so eager…so really smart for a little four year old! It was truly a rewarding experience to help her pass the time. I fly to Alberta on speaking engagements often and, I confess, have never had the time fly by (again no pun intended!) so quickly and happily as it did with Aimee. We had great fun, indeed! With my own daughter celebrating 23 on July 7th, it had been a long time since I’d discovered I could muster such quick and easy rapport with a pre-schooler. A comforting thought if I should ever become a grandmother. And we’ve stayed in touch ever since! Serendipity struck again.

So, if you must work much of this summer, how might you make some happy and unexpected/accidental professional “discoveries”, or fortunately bump up against something (or someone), especially while looking for something else entirely? How might you make this your summer of serendipity?

Here are some suggestions:

1. Get Quiet: Fertilize your thoughts. Let your mind have some regularly scheduled down time/quiet time this summer, so that “scathingly brilliant ideas” can rise and lurking serendipity may follow. Getting quiet, even for only fifteen minutes a day–can cut out the chatter and white noise of daily work life and allow you to hear the creative and fortunate ideas you may have been trying to tell yourself for years!

2. Keep Your Calm: Extra stress, anger, and even rage, can “blind” you to what’s present and available. Serendipitous opportunities may be dancing all around you and you’ll never even notice if you’re too stressed or angered. I recently read that it’s a clinical fact…counting to ten, when irritated or worse, really does help keep you grounded and calm; apparently the primitive brain flies off the handle and reacts in split seconds when presented with negative stimulus, but your higher thinking/more evolved brain-centre, responds more productively and positively if even a small amount of time, e.g. ten seconds, is allowed to kick-in. You knew that. Now it’s just a matter of practicing what’s known.

3. Be First to Reach Out to Others: Be the one who extends the olive branch to another first, sincerely and without profit or expectation. Be the one who says “yes”, who invites, who shares info, reveals and self-discloses. Oftentimes, once you do, the other will naturally follow suit, and from there, serendipity may flow.

4. Keep An Heart Open: Although it may be true that there are some people in your (work) life that will use your kindness or open-heartedness against you, work hard to focus on the potential, serendipitous benefits of an open, trusting heart. I suspect they outweigh the disadvantages in helping you discover where you may wish to professionally (or personally) go next.

5. Work on Discovering or Further Evolving Your True (or Next) Professional Passion: You can do this while still staying true to your current work. My book is entitled, Getting Passion Out of Your Profession. Sometimes I’m teased about the “passion” word, e.g. “Is this a book about lust in the workplace?”! Oh sure it is…not. Although “passion” is, indeed, in one definition, erotically lusty, there is also such a thing as business passion that occurs when your vision of what you professionally want drives you towards a goal that’s compelling and fulfilling. Anyone can work on this if it’s meaningful and important enough to do so.

6. Keep Your Eyes and Ears Open: Heighten your awareness of your workplace’s surroundings. Pay attention and increase your awareness of what people/colleagues, bosses, etc., say and do…via the workplace buzz, rumour mill, in meetings, elevators, etc. Heightening your awareness can help place you in serendipity’s way, should it decide to come a callin’ one weary Wednesday afternoon.

7. Keep Your Ego in Check: A healthy ego at work, of course, is a valued and helpful trait to protect your best interests and it can sometimes stifle acceptance of the way things just plain “are”. The exhale of acceptance can often lead to serendipitous events. So next time your ego threatens to isolate, separate, or otherwise create resistance for you, try merely accepting what is. After all, as is often declared by Borgs (In Star Trek), “Resistance is futile.”!

8. Take a Honest Summertime Inventory of Your Professional Strengths and Weaknesses, Belief Systems, Behaviours and Blindspots (Johari Window-style, see pages 37 – 45 in Getting Passion Out of Your Profession): Even though the experience of serendipity is, by definition, not expected, you can prepare yourself for the surprise of it more readily if you sincerely know these truths. An honest personal inventory allows more of your authentic self to surface. Serendipitous doors open more easily when you create greater personal clarity.

Creating fertile soil in which to plant serendipitous seeds is fine pre-work for evolving personal and professional leadership in any business capacity. Enlightened leaders willingly do the work required to plough and water the soil with serenity, initiative, openhearted awareness and acceptance, and self-discovery, to reap the harvest.

Serendipity and “good luck” come from the effort to create balance between opposing forces.
— Susan Milam Miller & Andre Martin

In the field of observation, chance favours only the prepared mind.
— Louis Pasteur

I find that a great part of the information I have, was acquired by looking up something and finding something else on the way.
— Franklin P. Adams, 1881-1960

Serendipity is looking in a haystack for a needle and discovering a farmer’s daughter.
–Julius Comroe Jr.

P. S. One last personal story of serendipity–my personal favourite:

I’d never met any of my English family until my mum died. On my first trip to England, I met my mum’s little sister, Kay (who was only 11 years old when my mum emigrated to Canada in 1952). Kay had been heavy-hearted for 40 years that she’d never again met her big sister, Beryl, as an adult. She remembered with great affection, and a little melancholy, too, the day my mum took her on a day trip to Windsor–just the two of them-to tell Kay that she’d be going to live in Canada forever. Kay recounted that my mum shared this heartbreaking news with her while crossing the footbridge, over the Thames, which joined Windsor with Eton. During my visit I asked my Auntie Kay to take me to that bridge (a place she hadn’t visited since that sad day so long ago). As we approached, I could feel both of our moods changing, getting quiet. We reached the crest of the bridge and took a few moments of quiet reflection, looking down at the water, as the pleasure boats passed underneath on that sunny July afternoon. And what do you think happened next??? A beautiful pleasure craft passed under, with the word “Beryl” painted on it’s back. My mummy/Kay’s sister floated right by us. Sailing happily on her way. Serendipity at its finest.

May this be your best, most rewarding summer of serendipity!

Please feel free to email me with your own serendipitous tales. I’d love to hear from you!

And, for my Canadian readers, to thank-you for reading to the very end: Here is a serendipitous summertime treat, on me (and Laura Secord Company!)…an Extra Scoop Ice Cream Coupon. Now that was unexpected!

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