Let’s Go Serendipity Hunting

You know about serendipity, right? That special type of luck, when misfortune turns out to be fortuitous? When the shit sandwich life serves you turns out to actually be a platter of cheese-covered nachos in disguise?

Here’s the thing about stumbling upon good fortune: we usually trip over it, curse at it, turf it in the garbage while plugging our nose, and then fail to turn our disappointment into discovery. What if we were better at sussing out serendipity?

Accidentally discovering something you weren’t looking for requires you to be on the lookout for something other than what you were expecting.

Velcro, pennicillin, dynamite, post-it notes, America (yes, the country), microwave ovens, popsicles… these were all fuck ups at first, until someone had the wherewithal to flip the fuck up on its head and see potential in what it could be, rather than getting stuck in what it was supposed to be.

Life is full of fuck ups! Which is great news, because with an alert mind that’s open to possibility, we can turn our failed intention to make synthetic rubber into Silly Putty (and then become billionaires). Most of us would have thrown in the towel after stirring vats of polydimethylsiloxane that stubbornly refused to harden as intended, but no — chemists back in the 50s hunted for serendipity and said, “this freakish substance could get us into the National Toy Hall of Fame!” And so Silly Putty was serendipitously born.

Serendipitous ViagraSpeaking of hardening (or not hardening), one of my favorite serendipty stories comes from Pfizer, where a bunch of scientists’ efforts to make a gob-smackingly profitable blood pressure medication was falling flat. But something else was rising to the, er, occasion in the clinical trials. Voila, Viagra! Someone in the room caught onto the serendipitiousness of the moment — that Problem A (hypertension) wasn’t being solved, and instead of getting all woebegone about it, they tuned into Problem B (impotence) that was being solved instead. How can you make Viagra out of your own circumstances?

Serendipty isn’t about luck and luck alone.

Economists explain, “While good luck may befall the inert or lazy, serendipitous discovery occurs only in the course of an energetic quest — a quest in which lucky discoveries of an unanticipated kind can be recognized through alertness and then flexibly exploited.” Don’t you love the idea of an energetic quest? Me too.

We all know that luck favors the prepared (according to fortune cookies), but researchers helpfully double-down on the fact that “preparedness is linked with qualities such as alertness, flexibility, courage, and assiduity.” (No one knows what assiduity means.)

Researchers also tell us that serendipity isn’t so much a happenstance thing that’s cool to talk about later as much as it is a capacity. We can all tap into fortuitous luck if we’re tuned into what good might come out of a situation that otherwise looks like it’s going down the toilet.

Academics summarize the benefits of serendipty as follows: “New ways of seeing may provide the necessary ingredients for creativity and exploratory learning, which will counter… tendencies towards inertia and the ossification of dominant mindsets and practices.” I don’t know about you but I don’t want my mindsets to become ossified, and inertia isn’t exactly synonmyous with an astonishingly alive life, is it?

Remember when we spoke about the Book of Bad Calls, and how snafus can be fodder for life lessons (not to mention ridiculous amusement)? Serendipity grows out of our bungles and wayward plans.

We’ve already talked about how life needs to suck sometimes (if you want any kind of meaning in your existence at all, pretty much)… and now we have a new twist. We need bouts of bad luck, misfortune, and downright failures in order to let something unexpectedly great enter our lives. (Check out The Sweet Spot: The Pleasures of Suffering and the Search for Meaning if this topic piques your interest.)

Go serendipity hunting!

Serendipity blossoms in the soils of alertness. Are you on high alert for serendipity? Could you reasonably call yourself a serendipity hunter as of today? Probably not. Most of us believe we need to move on from failure in a hurry so the stink of it won’t rub off on us, but mistakes are often the playground for unexpected discoveries. Adopting the mindset that things going wrong might be another version of things going right in disguise… that just might help you uncover unexpected treasures.

Serendipity expands our horizons in life. Where are you stuck seeing a failure or mistake or negative situation (or even a boringly neutral situation) as an unmitigated disaster, that might be something fabulous if you turned it counter-clockwise? Or if you flipped it upside down? Or if you squinted your eyes? Or if you revisited it after a nap? Or if you tried it with guacamole?

Serendipity involves being at the ready, curious, and open-minded. We can work on those things, starting today. We can ask ourselves in the midst of every project we’re about to trash, every endeavor we’re on the verge of abandoning, “How else could I see this? Where is the Silly Putty for me in this situation?” Let’s make something good of the unknown. And let’s go make some popsicles.

Jodi Wellman

Oh and just in case you missed it… please take 16 minutes out of your life to watch my TEDx talk!

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