The right place at the right time

Charli Mills Serendipity

This week at the Carrot Ranch Charli Mills is talking about serendipity and describes it this way:

“Serendipity is the gift we find accidentally when we make a choice or life chooses a course of action for us.”

I often think of serendipity as being in the right place at the right time. There are many occasions in my life where that has occurred, and probably millions more when I’ve missed by a millisecond, but many of those I’ll never know.

Our lives have been improved by many discoveries made through serendipity. This article on NOVA lists seven Accidental Discoveries  in medical science that have changed health outcomes people around the world:

  • Quinine
  • Smallpox vaccination
  • X-rays
  • Allergy
  • Insulin
  • Pap Smear
  • Penicillin

Joseph Henry - seeds of discovery

Lexi Krock, author of the article reminds us that, though some elements of serendipity, of chance, may have been involved in the discoveries, there was also a great degree of hard work, preparedness, creative thinking and an openness to possibilities. In fact Krock says that having an open mind is the most important ingredient. She quotes the words American physicist Joseph Henry:

 “The seeds of great discoveries are constantly floating around us, but they only take root in minds well prepared to receive them.”

I came to that article through The story of serendipity on Understanding Science, which also talks about lucky coincidences, such as the story of Newton and the apple. This article states there is more than being in the right place at the right time to make a serendipitous discovery, including:

  • Background knowledge
  • An inquisitive mind
  • Creative thinking
  • The right tools, and
  • Good timing

Another who attributes success in part, to serendipity, to being in the right place at the right time, is Malcolm Gladwell. Thanks to a serendipitous recommendation by Rowena, who blogs at Beyond the Flow, I have just finished listening to Gladwell read his book “The Outliers, The Story of Success”.

Gladwell argues that there is more to success than just intelligence and hard work. Yes both are important: intelligence to a certain level and hard work to a greater degree. Through “The Outliers” Gladwell popularised the idea of 10 thousand being the “magic” number of hours to practice for success to occur, citing sporting heroes, The Beatles and Bill Gates, amongst others..

However there is much dispute to this “rule”; and I must admit that, although I thoroughly enjoyed listening to and thinking about this book, it raised as many questions as it provided “answers” and I found myself wondering how much manipulation had gone into the figures to make them match his ideas, rather than the other way round. I am not saying there was any manipulation, I just wondered.

However, one point he was making, that I think has value and fits with the theme this post, is that one’s circumstances; one’s family, environment and time, including birth year and month, play an enormous role in one’s success. These are things over which we have no control.

According to Gladwell’s discussion of timing, I am correct in describing myself as “born too soon” in my Twitter bio. I was born just a few, but too many, years before the twelve month period that saw the births of Bill Joy, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. I didn’t have the opportunities they had either.  Gladwell explains the importance of their timing, environment and opportunities in his book.

In this Q and A Malcolm explains what an outlier is, what he thinks of as success, and how he thinks we should think of success. As well as the coincidence of Joy, Jobs and Gates, Gladwell says that “a surprising number of New York’s most powerful and successful corporate lawyers have almost the exact same biography: “they are Jewish men, born in the Bronx or Brooklyn in the mid-1930′s to immigrant parents who worked in the garment industry. “ He also says that “a hugely disproportionate number of professional hockey and soccer players are born in January, February and March.” Coincidence? He explains why.

In her post Charli Mills states that

“Serendipity holds no guarantees, but we can take the gifts it offers.”

The gifts were there for the hockey and soccer players born in the first quarter of the year, but stacked against anyone born in the final months of the year. Likewise, serendipity held false promises for me when I was working towards establishing an alternative school.  Meeting the expectations of the Education Department proved no barrier. Meeting town planning requirements was much more elusive.

The first property with any real potential we investigated was in Skew Street. Not surprisingly the odds were skewed against us and we couldn’t proceed there.

Shortly after we located a much better property: more central, with ample indoor and outdoor space and a large playground. The arrangements seemed ideal, and the street names were much more promising. It was on the corner of Water and Love Street. Surely that had to bode better for us than Skew Street. Serendipity.

Unfortunately, though it was definitely the right place, the timing was wrong. At the final moment, when leases were to be signed, a member of the organisation, who had been absent from previous meetings and discussions, turned up, objected and put an end to our plans.

While some of us did continue to search for another location, it was like trying to find a needle in a haystack; there were few that met town planning requirements, and even fewer that met ours. Parents who had expected their children to start with us decided they could wait no longer and made other arrangements for their children’s education. The last minute loss of the ideal property rocked us to the core. With much heartbreak we finally admitted defeat and disbanded. Having read Gladwell’s book I am now willing to accept that it was not because I didn’t work hard enough but because there were other factors working against us.

I decided that, in response to Charli’s flash fiction challenge to In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that reveals or explores a moment of serendipity, this time I would provide Marnie with a positive experience, the beginning of a new phase in her life; serendipity working it’s magic.

doors

The wrong place at the right time

Marnie was puzzled. The card definitely said 225; but there wasn’t any 225. There was 223, and 227, but no 225. She peered at the crack between the apartments as if willing 225 to materialise. Exhausted and confused, unsure of what to do next, she slumped on the step.

“Can I help you?”

The question interrupted her muddled thoughts. Seeing kindness in the eyes, Marnie explained her predicament.

The woman read the card.

“Street, not Avenue,” she said, pointing to the sign. “Are you Marnie? Lucky I got the wrong bus today. I’m Josephine. Come on. It’s not far.”

Thank you

Thank you for reading. I appreciate your feedback. Please share your thoughts about any aspect of this post or flash fiction.

 

38 thoughts on “The right place at the right time

  1. Sacha Black

    Wait…… WHAT????????????? you can’t do that! Who the hell is Josephine?! OMG, i MUST know, I NEEEEEEEEED to know. for the love of my sanity, write Marnie’s story already! you kill me with these tidbits! I want more. ❤

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    1. Norah Post author

      Sorry. Sacha. I don’t know enough about her yet, and I’m trying to focus on other things (with difficulty!) But I do appreciate your interest.
      Josephine is the person at the safe house where Marnie is going to live now that she has left home. Marnie was at the wrong address and Joshephine just happened by. Serendipity. 🙂

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  2. Autism Mom

    “10 thousand being the “magic” number of hours to practice for success to occur”

    This was just referenced in Doctor Who this week – now I understand it! 🙂 I have heard of Malcolm Gladwell’s writing, but have not had a chance to read it. Better add it to the list…

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    1. Norah Post author

      We learn so much from TV shows, don’t we? Some of it fact, and some of it fiction. 🙂 “The Outliers” is definitely an interesting book. It may fit the above category too. I’m not sure. 🙂
      Thanks for reading and commenting.

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  3. Steven

    Norah, thanks for another thought-provoking post. To put a different spin on things, perhaps it is fortunate for us readers that the school opportunity was missed. Consider if it did progress, then it could have been the case that you may not have eventually established an interesting blog… being more involved in the operations of the school with less time to ponder on other matters and maybe missing that critical point that eventually led to establishing a blog.

    Of course it could equally be the case that you missed out on the critical point where you missed the chance encounter at the school with the critical pubilisher who wants to publish all your work.

    I think it is problably wise to reflect on such things and consider the possibilities, but probably not to dwell on them too much. What has happened is done and there is no way to change that.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Oh Steven. You are so kind. I like that spin you put on it. Thank you. I’m pleased to know you appreciate my blog and the thinking it encourages you to engage in. I agree that it is better not to dwell on the past with regret, only with learning gleaned. We can’t go back, only forward, and enjoy this day and where we are at the moment. And I’m taking great pleasure in reading and responding to your comment. Thank you. 🙂

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  4. Sherri

    Oh Norah, I’m so sorry about your school, what a blow that was. As I read your thought-provoking post, I kept thinking of all the times when things haven’t worked out in my life and how I’ve had to really battle against comparing myself to others when it seems ‘everything’ seems to go so right for them, time and time again. That kind of thinking only generates discontent and zaps energy better spent on focusing on those things that do go right. And there are many. I’ve heard of Gladwell, I remember a blogger I used to follow, in my earlier blogging days, who was writing a book to take on the Canadian legal system which he felt was skewed against fathers in divorce cases, going so far as to rage against feminism and all it stood for. He disappeared last year (not sure what happened to him), but he was a huge fan of Gladwell, perhaps believing that if he put in those hours, he would win through. I’m not sure, I can’t remember, but something stuck in my brain otherwise I wouldn’t be mentioning it here now! I’m not sure I agree, anytime I read about certain quotas or formulas I am immediately sceptical. So much I believe really does come down to being in the right place at the right time. Some call it luck, some serendipty, others divine intervention. I’m so glad that Marnie was in the right place despite thinking she was lost. Great post Norah, you always get me thinking hard and I love that your flash has me smiling at the end 🙂

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thank you for your lovely words and for sharing your thoughts, Sherri. I must admit that while the school didn’t work out for me, many other things have. I have had many opportunities that have given me a lot of pleasure and I have had a lot of good fortune in areas where others haven’t. I am thankful every day for the wonderful things I have and try to avoid envy when I see the skills and opportunities of others. (Maybe except for singing. I’d love to be able to sing. But then maybe if I could sing I’d be lacking in another way.:)) I love it when you and others tell me that I have stretched their thinking. If I have done that then I have succeeded in some way. It gives me even more pleasure when the reverse happens and my thinking is challenged and extended. You do that for me. Thank you. 🙂
      That’s an interesting story you tell about the blogger and his rage against feminism. I think the system was stacked against fathers so far as custody of children went, but I do believe that is changing. Hours probably do play a part in whether he would be successful or not, as it would take some time to put in those hours, and during that time many changes do occur in the ways things such as this are handled in society. It does help when the rest of society is ready to think that way; when the timing is right, though.
      I’m pleased you enjoyed this episode in Marnie’s life. I’m looking forward to exploring this “chapter” of her life but at the moment it is the part I know least about.

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      1. Sherri

        Oh I’m smiling to think that I stretch your thinking as you do mine! Norah, I take that as a great compliment, thank you!! Sometimes I wonder if I’m just rambling!! But yes, definitely, we do need to put in those hours, no way could we succeed without putting in the work, and you explain it much better than I, that in addition to those hours, timing comes into play very much so…when the planets align just so 🙂 Sitting back waiting for that ‘right time’ is not the answer though is it? I just read something about this funnily enough, about forging ahead to pursue our dreams and goals and not wating for that right time, because it will never come! There is never the right time to get married, have kids, buy a house, write a book, build a school…you just gotta do it, right? Within reason, of course…but you know what I mean…and of course, there are no guarantees things will work out, but we can’t let that stop us. Better to have tried and failed than never to have tried at all, and all that 🙂 And yes, it’s so important to look at all we’ve been blessed with rather than being envious of others. But wouldn’t it be great to sing? I always wanted to be either a jazz singer in a club or a dancer. But I became a writer instead, ha!! I look forward to reading where Marnie goes next…and so I head to your latest post 🙂

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        1. Norah Post author

          Thank you for popping back with even more to add, Sherri. I can see I’m not getting away from here tonight. Hopefully I’ll have time to do the rounds, including yours, tomorrow.
          I think we have to make the time, for “the” time to be made for us, don’t we? But then we can’t force it to be right, either. Sometimes it’s just out of sync with whatever else is going on.Like the song says, you have to know when to hold them, when to fold them, and when to forge ahead. Trouble is recognising any of the signals for their true worth is the tricky bit. Perhaps you just have to take a deep breath and dive in!
          I’m pleased you decided to write. If you’d been a singer or a dancer I would never have met you!

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          1. Sherri

            Yes…I really like that: ‘…when to hold them, when to fold them and when to forge ahead…’ And now I’ll bid you goodnight! And I’m so glad we met here too… thanks Norah! 🙂

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  5. julespaige

    I really enjoy the research you put into your posts. And I wish I had the time to explore every link. I’m not so sure about the Bill Gates and company, but the great hockey players …well my hubby explains that those boys, being born at that time can often be held back before starting school so when they finally enter they are older and bigger than the rest. And thus adapt well to their sport (really which ever they choose).

    Sometimes when opportunity knocks we are at the wrong door. I’m not blaming fate or anything else I have no control over like the stars I was born under. Too many folks have made it out from the bottom to the top and several born with silver spoons in their mouths have lost their sheen because of not having a so called normal life.

    I would like to believe that when one door closes another opens.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks, Jules.That’s an interesting comment your Hub made about the hockey players. I could see that being held back would be an advantage for them. Definitely being older and bigger would be, which is Gladwell’s point. It’s interesting for me here at the moment thinking about my son’s first year at school in year one and comparing it to his son’s first year at school in prep. The system changed the cut-off month for starting age a few years ago. Both my son and his son have September birthdays. My son was in the younger quarter of the class (cut off 1st January) and felt disadvantaged by that in high school. His son is one of the older ones (cut off end of June). In prep, he is at exactly the same age as his dad was in year one. He’ll be doing year one next year. It will be interesting to see the effect, if any, this has. I think being older definitely is an advantage. That extra time to learn and develop at age 5/6/7 a year makes a lot of difference.
      I think there is no hard and fast rule about any of this; just lots of interesting ideas to consider.
      Like you, I like to think there is always an open door waiting with promises of much to explore.
      Thanks for reading and commenting.

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  6. Annecdotist

    Thought-provoking post as always, Norah. I haven’t read Gladwell but heard so much about the 10,000 hours, and it fits with my own beliefs, so I tend to accept it as, if not proven, then fairly reliable. Even geniuses have had to work damn hard. But, until I followed the link, I didn’t think it had been interpreted as meaning if you put in those hours you’ll get results, and that other factors aren’t important.
    With your own personal example you pick up on the contribution of timeliness. Sometimes our ideas just aren’t right for the times or, as in your case with the property, don’t get the reception they deserve from others. I think it’s really important to recognise that, for most successes, we are dependent on other people, either to support the initiative or recognise its value. Sometimes good ideas and hard work just isn’t enough. The difficulty is that we can tend to blame ourselves because it’s never clear whether we might have got there if we’d done more or no amount of effort would have made it happen. I’m saying something similar in my post. It’s a great mistake to analyse only those cases which ended in success. Those that failed might have had exactly the same ingredients.
    And great to see Marnie getting some good luck – if Josephine hadn’t come along she’d have been there thinking she was stupid.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks for your lovely comment, Anne. I’m just back from reading and commenting (and following lots of links) on your post. I did notice quite a bit of similarity in what we were presenting. It’s always nice to be in agreement, though a challenge can be good too. It’s interesting that you said you didn’t join in the last serendipity challenge. It looks like I didn’t either. I wonder why. Coincidence? It wasn’t planned so far as I recall.
      I appreciate what you have said about my situation with the school. At the time there were those who said that success comes to those who are persistent; and there were those who said that you have to listen to the messages. It was very confusing and difficult to make the decision to say we had done enough. In the end I just ran out of puff and didn’t feel like running into yet another brick wall. While I believe I made the logical/sensible/right decision, there is always that niggling question, “What if …?”
      While I don’t think it was totally clear in the flash, it was Josephine that Marnie was supposed to connect with, a “safe” house after leaving home. Thanks for your comment.

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      1. Annecdotist

        Yeah, really confusing trying to analyse an effort that didn’t yield the results you wanted/expected – very like submitting to agents and publishers.
        I actually thought that I had done the previous serendipity prompt until I went back to check – I had a couple of memories of flashes I’d written that seemed to fit, but I couldn’t find on my own blog. I do enjoy moments of serendipity in real life but still don’t think it’s something I want to write about. Much.
        And I totally got in your flash that it was Josephine she was looking for, but sheer chance that they both found each other in the wrong place. (Or perhaps Josephine had anticipated the confusion in her address and (unconsciously?) stopped by to check?)
        And that reminds me of the unconscious, I’ll bet that also plays a big part in chance occurrences.

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        1. Norah Post author

          Thanks for your comment, Anne. You raise some interesting points. Submitting to agents and publishers is definitely an activity that doesn’t always produce the results one hopes for! I’m pleased you secured a publisher for your first two novels – success there at least! Congratulations. 🙂
          I thought the same with the serendipity prompt. I guess the way we interpret the prompts can bear some similarities to others. I’m pleased you got that Josephine and Marnie were meant to meet up. Maybe the unconscious, or Josephine’s awareness of the possibility of confusion led her there. That’s true. Thank you for seeing the connection.

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  7. Pingback: Serendipity Happens « Carrot Ranch Communications

  8. jeanne229

    Really rich post Norah. Made me think of the famous Thomas Edison quote: “Genius is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration.” And very interesting reflections on Gladwell. Read several reviews of the book and the 10,000 hour thing got a lot of press. I am inclined to think that yes, that is what “talent” usually is: hard work. I suppose there must be an innate spark but those examples you cited were pretty persuasive on the power of environment, birth and other circumstances to effect the outcome of any life. But that brings us back to serendipity and chance. Why are we we? Why was I born to the parents I was born to, in this place and time? Pure biology? Again, happy I stopped by. Will pop in more often.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thank you so much for reading and commenting, Jeanne. It’s lovely that you stopped by. I was thinking of that quote too, and others like it. Gladwell certainly puts forward a good case, and I think it’s obvious that we are indeed influenced by our circumstances and environment. He does unpack it all a bit further though. It’s funny – he sees it as a positive realisation, that knowing this information we can take more control over who succeeds and who doesn’t, and he thinks more should – I was tending to feel that with all this stacked against us, why would we bother! I guess knowing the way that many are disadvantaged by birth month means that we can make changes to level the playing field, so to speak. 🙂

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  9. Charli Mills

    An interesting premise, the 10,000 times.I wonder if we excel at the things we like because we do those things more often, whether it is to read or ice skate. The importance of timing, environment and opportunities is a special recipe and when I read that I think of Shakespear. He lived at the cusp of Middle English and Modern, which gave him ample leeway to play with language and invent words. His theater environment was ripe for him to do that and get firsthand response from audiences. Ah, so painful to think of the time when the mix wasn’t right or one person objected. I’ve watched the cooperative where I once worked face that same dilemma with expansion. They may not get to do so now.

    Marnie’s predicament is meant with kind help. Perhaps part of serendipity relies on the kindness of others!

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Charli. I certainly think it helps to like what you have to practice, or choose to practice, and therefor excel at. It’s painful when you practice something and still don’t get good at it though. (I’m thinking of all my singing in the shower! :))
      I enjoyed reading your thoughts about Shakespeare’s opportunities. I think it is definitely true that we are all a “product of our times”.
      I agree with you about kindness too. It reminds me of the ripple effect. We may never know the effects of our words and actions so we should always strive to make them positive. How fortunate I was to come across your blog and your flash fiction challenge. I can’t even remember how that happened.
      Thanks for sharing. 🙂

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  10. Bec

    Thanks for the interesting post, as always Nor. It makes me so angry to read about that one person who was the lone voice to stop the Centre from going ahead. When I drive past Water and Love Streets, I always wonder about what it would have been like. I would like to meet that person to ask them to reflect on the impact of their opposition – how has that action resonated in their life? I bet it hasn’t. I bet that person hasn’t reflected at all, and hasn’t thought about what they, essentially single-handed, stopped. About all the opportunities they took away from others.

    I am pleased to see Marnie was able to recognise kindness and ask for help, and I can relate to her feeling of confusion and loss!

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thank for your comment Bec. I wonder what it would have been like too. If I’d known then what I know now I may have pushed a little harder, but I didn’t then out of respect for the requests made by the organisation (not giving us the whole truth). Let your anger go. Give it love and let it float away in the waters. Nothing to be done. I wonder how different your present may be from what it would have been too. We can never know, but only wonder.
      Thanks for your support re Marnie’s episode too. Another kind person appears in her life. 🙂

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  11. TanGental

    ah Marnie; we live on Alleyn Park; next is Alleyn Road. I can’t count the number of people who come to us when they want the other and vica versa. Nothing exciting has come from it yet, but the writer in me lives in hope… I read Ro’s take on Gladwell and some of his theories. Like you I’m a bit sceptical but some of it makes a degree of sense. Thoughtful post, Norah

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thank you Geoff. I’m pleased you were able to see what I was getting at with Marnie’s confusion over the address. I was also thinking of Harry Potter and the station to getting to wherever it is in the book (ooh, it is a long time since I’ve read it – please don’t tell Donna, though, she’s a mad keen Potter fan!). That definitely requires being in the right place at the right time.
      Thanks for reminding me about Rowena’s post on Gladwell. I must revisit and compare notes. 🙂

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  12. Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

    A very thoughtful and informative post. I totally agree that you have to be receptive to what happens in order to move forward. The other factors all play their parts in this. In some ways its a bit like happiness – it is not what happens that makes you happy but how you deal with it. I was interested in your attempt to set up an alternative schooling venture. Such a pity that one person could have that kind of impact on the group and potentially changed the future for many children. Timing is everything. Even in writing. Glad Marnie got the timing right and serendipity sent her Josephine.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thank you for reading and for your comment, Irene. I like the tie you made to happiness and how we choose the way we look at or deal with things. One person can make a difference! The issue was very complicated and of course we didn’t give up after just one attempt, but this was a major factor. Who know what would have been, and maybe I’m better off now that it didn’t go ahead, but I always wonder “What if?”
      It was a good thing that Josephine happened that way and found Marnie. I don’t know what she would have done otherwise! 🙂

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        1. Norah Post author

          That’s true! It is said that it is better to have tried and lost than to never have tried at all. I am pleased I tried. And yes, life may be better now than it would have been had it happened. 🙂

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