“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:
- Smallpox vaccination
- Pap Smear
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.
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 for reading. I appreciate your feedback. Please share your thoughts about any aspect of this post or flash fiction.