‘Discovering’ Serendipity in Our Lives

Assistant Editor Dan Hoffman writes that serendipity might seem a pure matter of chance, but it may be something we can look for.

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Posted in , Jan 19, 2016

Have you made a great discovery by mistake? Or faith?

Can we make our lives more serendipitous? That’s just the topic of a recent New York Times editorial by author Pagan Kennedy, “How to Cultivate the Art of Serendipity.” Serendipity–which is not simply dumb luck–is responsible for many great discoveries of the last century.

Kennedy cites Steve Hollinger, an inventor who threw a digital camera across the room in a fit of frustration. Luckily it hit a pillow. When he saw the resulting photo taken by the camera, he realized he was on to something–throwable cameras that could snap pictures mid-air to get a bird’s eye view. In the realm of science, other examples are numerous: the microwave oven, safety glass, smoke detectors, artificial sweeteners, X-ray imaging, and a host of important medications were all found thanks to unexpected twists and turns.

It’s not exactly dumb luck, according to Pagan, because these discoveries usually happened during research and experimentation–these inventors were searching for something, just not what they found. It was their power of observation, and their willingness to stray from their original intentions, that led them to new, surprising insights. This is in fact the origin of the word serendipity: it refers to the three princes of Serendip in a Persian fairy tale with special powers of observation who were “always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of.”

To become one of these “super encounterers” of serendipity, Kennedy writes, you must, in part, “believe that you are one–it helps to assume that you possess special powers of perception, like an invisible set of antennas, that will lead you to clues.” That’s not unlike some of the people in our Mysterious Ways stories. Their faith influences them to piece together patterns and find the deeper meaning. They feel hunches, trust their intuition, and are open to the unexpected and the miraculous. They often think they’re headed one place, but end up in another—one even better than they envisioned.

True, our stories don’t always feature people making great scientific discoveries or coming up with valuable inventions (although they do from time to time), but what they “discover” instead is a fresher, more positive outlook on life and a renewed sense of wonder about the world.

So perhaps Kennedy, in her article, is right, and we can cultivate serendipity by being more observant and more open to new possibilities. It might not lead us to win Nobel prizes in science, but we’ll still be the better for it.

What great discoveries have you made “by mistake?” Share your stories with us.

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