Serendipity Isn’t Luck

The word “serendipity” was first coined byThomas Walpole, an 18th Century British diarist, who wrote about the Persian story of The Three Princes of Serendip (now Sri Lanka), in which three princes went on a journey “making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of…”

It was only some time later, after his writings were published in the mid 19th Century, that the meaning we now attribute to the word began to be applied. In the process, one thing seems to have been lost in translation from his original observation that I think still stands true: Sagacitywas involved—a word that has roots in seeking, being observant, wise, and keen. And because luck is just random, it’s this side of serendipity that I want to discuss: chance favors the prepared mind. Serendipity isn’t luck.

How to Accelerate Serendipity

Is it possible to increase the chances of beneficial, happy accidents to occur? Can you accelerateserendipity? For the last few years, I’ve been trying, and I’ve bumped into a few principles along the way.

Just Show Up

We all get invited to things. When I receive an invitation there’s always a temptation to say “oh gosh, it’s going to be so much effort to get there, I think I have to decline,” or “I’m not really sure what the benefit of attending this is—I think I’ll pass.”

A couple of years ago I was awarded a place in one of those Important List of Young People Who’ll Probably Be More Important in the Future lists—you know the kind of thing. The thing is, I was broke. My bank account was empty and I was down to my last handful of cash. To get to the event I’d be using it to pay for a train ticket. It was probably slightly crazy but I spent my last penny to go to a party where a bunch of the other people from the list would be. I didn’t know what I would find there, but I was determined that it would be a room full of opportunity. It was. On the way out I briefly chatted to someone who I would go on to found a company with.

If I hadn’t gone to that party that wouldn’t have happened. Just show up became a rule, and it can be applied to any kind of event or invitation—even things you’re not invited to.

Put Yourself in the Right Place

Location, location, location. If you want to bump into people who are relevant to what you want to achieve, put yourself right in the middle. For my new company we wanted to be right in the middle of the London startup scene, so that meant being as close as possible to the famous Silicon Roundabout of Tech City, East London. The bumping-into-ness factor around our studio is way higher than anywhere else in London for the kind of thing we’re doing.

For you, it might be basing yourself at a research park, or taking a desk at a co-working space, or moving to a different city where there’s a higher density of people doing the thing you want to do. Whatever it is, pay attention to the serendipity factor.

Avoid Zemblanity

When you’re working, take a break occasionally. You can’t work all hours of the day, and bumping into other people is an important factor in making whatever it is that you’re doing a success. Step away from the desk occasionally, get out, speak to people, and just show up.

Zemblanity, a word coined by William Boyd in his book Armadillo in the 1980s, is the polar opposite of serendipity. It’s named after the cold, barren serendipity-less island of Zembla:

So what is the opposite of Serendip, a southern land of spice and warmth, lush greenery and hummingbirds, seawashed, sunbasted? Think of another world in the far north, barren, icebound, cold, a world of flint and stone. Call it Zembla. Ergo: zemblanity, the opposite of serendipity, the faculty of making unhappy, unlucky and expected discoveries by design.

Say “Yes, And…” Instead of “Yes, But…”

This is such a simple thing to try. Any time someone gives you a suggestion, and you feel yourself thinking of playing the devils’ advocate, stop. Starting a sentence with “yes, but” is a surefire way to close down an opportunity—try to think about the other person’s idea or statement and see what you could add. Start with “yes, and…” and go from there! It’s a principle from the world of improv, and I’m often surprised by the happy accidents that result from a simple suggestion to someone.

The rest of the article: here.


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