Serendipity has been on my mind for a long time. It has shaped my life in many occasions and I always welcome and nurture Serendipity every time I come into “her”. It has no translation in French, apart from the neologism serendipité, “heureux hasard”, “transactions fortuites” (from the latin fortuna, luck). I picture “her” as this young woman, happily mixing fresh dough. Where am I in the picture? The Dough! But what if I could also be the one who kneads the dough, the Shaper?
- What is exactly serendipity? How different is it from synchronicity, coincidence, hazard, or even intuition?
- Can we shape serendipity? Isn’t it a paradox?
- And if we can actually shape serendipity, how would the recipe look like?
Let’s look at the metaphor of the young woman happily kneading dough. Imagine 2 persons next to each other, with simply flour, water, a little salt and some yeast in front of them. How one will be able to shape a beautiful bread out it and the other almost nothing but a waste of time. What will happen? In one case, the person stares at the ingredients and does nothing, just wait for something to happen. Guess what? Flour, salt, yeast and water will ultimately become dust. The other person feels a strong will to put her whole self, hands, heart and soul into the making, kneading, mixing of the ingredients. Rest, bake and produce a magnificent piece of bread.
- It requires a leap in faith, or rather in inner trust that good will come out of this experience.
- It requires diving into the experience. You get messy when you knead bread, your fingers, your hands, your arms, (sometimes your face too if you’re like me!) get sticky and covered with flour.
- It requires anticipation and preparation of course. Gather the right ingredients, be at the “right” place, at the right time.
- It requires hard work and duration too, quite exhausting. You must be ready to commit to it in the duration, it isn’t instant miraculous insight.
- It requires being extra-sensitive to the whole experience, with its fine range of sensations. Being “perceptive”, developing awareness, presence and mindfulness. A kind of Zen experience.
- It requires an open mind, curiosity and mindfullness.
Good bakers, like sculptors, have an intimate connection with the ingredients, the raw material in the process of growing it into their creation. I imagine this young woman is putting herself into the dough, her enthusiasm is tangible. It reminds me how I feel when I am baking, especially this week where the meaning has shifted dramatically with the events that shaped our family. It’s an act of TRUST. What is Serendipity?
- The Three Princes of Serendip, once the name for Sri Lanka.“Once upon a time, there existed in the country of Serendippo, in the Far East, a great and powerful king by the name of Giaffer. He had three sons who were very dear to him. And being a good father and very concerned about their education, he decided that he had to leave them endowed not only with great power, but also with all kinds of virtues of which princes are particularly in need. He thus sent them away from the land, to test their virtues far away from the shelter of his kingdom.”
This is how this Ancient Persian fairy tale starts and , serendipitously, guides us to the word and its meaning today. Meanwhile, during the 18th Century in Great Britain, Sir Horace Walpole came up with the word Serendipity. Here’s an extract from a letter he wrote in 1754 to Horace Mann, an English friend who lived in Florence:
“It was once when I read a silly fairy tale, called The Three Princes of Serendip: as their highnesses traveled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of: for instance, one of them discovered that a camel blind of the right eye had traveled the same road lately, because the grass was eaten only on the left side, where it was worse than on the right—now do you understand serendipity? One of the most remarkable instances of this accidental sagacity (for you must observe that no discovery of a thing you are looking for, comes under this description) was of my Lord Shaftsbury, who happening to dine at Lord Chancellor Clarendon’s, found out the marriage of the Duke of York and Mrs. Hyde, by the respect with which her mother treated her at table.”
SERENDIPITY (from The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 3rd Edition)
“The faculty of making fortunate discoveries by accident.”
As you can see, definitions of serendipity are multiple, but I believe Serendipity is much more than a happy accident, a simple hazard or a coincidence. There needs to be some “sagacity” into it… It’s also different from synchronicity, as clearly explained in Maximising Serendipity , the art of recognising and fostering unexpected potential — A Systemic Approach to Change by James Lawley and Penny Tompkins.
The distinction between serendipity and synchronicity is a matter of time. With synchronicity there is an immediate recognition of the ‘meaningful coincidence of two events happening close in time’. Serendipity, however, cannot be assessed until later when the consequences of events are evaluated. Synchronicity can become serendipity if the effects of the coincidental events have large positive significance over time. However serendipity can also arise out of events that are not synchronous. This gives four possibilities:
- Synchronicity leading to serendipity
- Synchronicity leading nowhere
- Ordinary events leading to serendipity
- Ordinary events leading nowhere
The Serendipity Paradox. If we have absolutely no control over accidents, hazards, coincidences by definition, how could we “dare” “shaping serendipity”? Isn’t it god’ will or fate that creates this series of events? The answer may come from embracing other aspects of serendipity which are more related to “sagacity”, and ultimately to intuition, in the Bergsonian understanding of it. Sagacity:
Intuition therefore is a kind of experience, and indeed Bergson himself calls his thought “the true empiricism” (The Creative Mind, p. 175). What sort of experience? In the opening pages of “Introduction to Metaphysics,” he calls intuition sympathy (The Creative Mind, p. 159). Bergsonian intuition then consists in entering into the thing, rather than going around it from the outside. This “entering into,” for Bergson, gives us absolute knowledge. In any case, for Bergson, intuition is entering into ourselves – he says we seize ourselves from within – but this self-sympathy develops heterogeneously into others. In other words, when one sympathizes with oneself, one installs oneself within duration and then feels a “certain well defined tension, whose very determinateness seems like a choice between an infinity of possible durations” (The Creative Mind, p. 185).
So what’s the recipe for shaping serendipity?
Three interpretations and my conclusion.
- Actually, the first time I came across this expression, “shaping serendipity”, was thanks to John Hagel’s blog, Edge Perspectives. In The Power of Pull, he develops with John Seely Brown this provocative idea and how each of us could apply it into our work. Here is a brilliant extract, “Serendipity Pull Funnel”. You can also download the HBR article here. You can even watch the conversation between the “two Johns” in this video, posted on facebook. According to John Hagel and John Seely Brown, there are three choices which determine how we can shape serendipity in our relationships at work:
- Where we spend our time. People are spending more time in virtual environments, especially social network platforms, because they instinctively sense that these environments are often rich catalysts for serendipity. At the same time, people are making choices about where they spend their time in physical environments that also shape serendipity. While the world is getting flatter due to technology advances, people still move to large urban centers, frequent conferences, and participate in institutions which increase the likelihood of unexpected encounters with people relevant to their interests and needs.
- How we spend our time. These physical and virtual environments attract a large number of people. How do we stand out and get noticed so that we attract unexpected encounters?
- How we maximize the value of the unexpected encounter. If we are not prepared when the unexpected encounter finally occurs, it will not yield much value. Listening deeply, being attentive, and understanding what the other person is involved in prove invaluable in converting a chance meeting into a more valuable sustained relationship that keeps on giving. Bringing mindfulness, intuition and “seizing oneself from within and with the others”, as Bergson would say.
- Second source of recipes, in maximising serendipity, developed by James Lawley and Penny Tompkins, in A Systemic Aproach to Change.
A prepared mind. An unplanned and unexpected event happens. There is a recognition of the potential for positive significance in the future. At some point this is followed by an action which aims to amplify the potential for positive significance. Over time there are consequences of the action, and of other things that are happening, which further amplify the benefit of E. The value of the original event and the subsequent effects becomes apparent — at which time serendipity can be said to have taken place.
- Thirdly, I will call on the French philosopher Bergson, who suggested a “method” to experience intuition, which resonates with serendipity.
- The first act is a kind of leap
- Then one should make the effort to dilate one’s duration into a continuous heterogeneity
- One should make the effort to differentiate the extremes of this heterogeneity
“Because intuition in Bergson is “integral experience” (The Creative Mind, p. 200), it is made up of an indefinite series of acts, which correspond to the degrees of duration. This series of acts is why Bergson calls intuition a method. The first act is a kind of leap, and the idea of a leap is opposed to the idea of a re-constitution after analysis. One should make the effort to reverse the habitual mode of intelligence and set oneself up immediately in the duration. But then, second, one should make the effort to dilate one’s duration into a continuous heterogeneity. Third, one should make the effort to differentiate (as with the color orange) the extremes of this heterogeneity. With the second and third steps, one can see a similarity to Plato’s idea of dialectic understood as collection and division. The method resembles that of the good butcher who knows how to cut at the articulations or the good tailor who knows how to sew pieces of cloth together into clothes that fit. On the basis of the division into extremes or into a duality, one can then confront our everyday “mixtures” of the two extremes. Within the mixture, one makes a division or “cut” into differences in kind: into matter and spirit, for instance. Then one shows how the duality is actually a monism, how the two extremes are “sewn” together, through memory, in the continuous heterogeneity of duration. Indeed, for Bergson, intuition is memory; it is not perception.”
I love here the metaphors with the “good butcher” or “good tailor”. Conclusion, for a very long post. For me, shaping serendipity is like kneading dough and accepting to put yourself totally in the experience, into the dough. You become the dough and the kneader simultaneously. It’s been a very long post and I know it will need editing, formating and making it shorter and clearer. I needed the process of writing it though, before I could again separate it and produce the Serendipity whole grain organic bread The best personal example of serendipity was just given to me one hour ago on Twitter and I have dozens of stories like that, if not hundreds… I retweeted a post about story telling and Leadership by @Storyteling (Limor Shiponi). When Limor kindly thanked me, I responded immediately, “yes, great post but why did you picture only male heroes?” Limor answered right away and we started a quick passionate exchange of tweets which naturally led us to skype (not even going through the hiding closet of DMs!!!). I just went off the skype conversation and had an amazing time, hearing the deep and powerful voice of Limor, telling me stories of the Ladies of the lake, in Arthurian tales, of early Sionism heroines, of a woman pirate in Elizabethan Period and we also shared our personal stories and our own heroine’s journey. We discovered many common interests and also patterns in our lives (the 3 daughters…, the role of the strong heroic female presence in our families) She helped me make sense of persoanl and professional stories in my life and we built many bridges for future collaboration. Isn’t it Serendipity? Did it meet the recipe for shaping serendipity? Absolutely! Every single step! A leap of trust in the twitter stream, mindfullness and dilatation of experience, using the radar of intuition, sending and smelling the storytelling’s pheromones, bringing fun, enthusiasm, vitality and passionate kneading of the dough! What does it mean for you? How did you achieve to create it in your life, in your business?