032: Reflecting on Serendipity

032: Reflecting on Serendipity

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032: Reflecting on Serendipity

I’m going to start these reflections on serendipity, 

It’s the underlying theme of this series, a word that’s often used but as a concept somewhat misunderstood.  

Let’s start with its origins. 

The origins of words always make for fascinating reading. 

But ‘serendipity’ has a particularly interesting origin story. 

The word ‘serendipity’ was invented on 28 January 1754 in a letter from Horace Walpole to another Horace—Mann.

When Walpole (son of Britain’s first de facto Prime Minister, Robert Walpole) wrote down the word ‘serendipity’ for the first time, he was giving the English language one of its most adored, but bewildering words. 

Walpole was a prolific creator, or populariser, of new words. The Oxford English Dictionary credits him with introducing over 200 words into the English language, among them malaria, nuance, somber, and souvenir.

But Walpole is most recognized neologism was ‘serendipity’, often cited as meaning the ‘faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident’. 

The word ‘serendipity’ is derived from Serendip, the old name for Sri Lanka, but the etymology of Walpole’s creation of serendipity stems from a specific work of literature, a Persian fairy tale called “The Three Princes of Serendip”: as princes traveled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest off. 

In fact, it’s one of the earliest detective stories in existence: the story of how three princes track down a missing camel through ‘luck and good fortune’. However, the princes actually utilize curiosity or forensic deduction – on a Sherlockian level. And it’s that curiosity and deduction that, ironically, gets them into trouble. 

As the story goes – they were traveling through the desert, when they met a merchant whose camel had gone missing.

They helped the merchant by tracking the animal’s progress through the land. However the descriptions and deductions they make about the lost animal were in such striking detail that the merchant suspected them of having stolen it and had the stand trial before the king, Bahram Gur, where the merchant publicly accuses the princes of theft, and the king sentences them to death – unless they can produce the camel and return it to its owner.

Among the princes’ deductions that set off the suspicion was that they correctly managed to identify that it was lame in one leg, blind in one eye, and had a missing tooth. They deduced these distinguishing features from the patches of grass on which the camel had grazed, and the imprints it had left in the ground. 

What happens to the princes in the end? Good fortune intervened and their lives are spared, when a traveler shows up and announces that he has seen a camel wandering in the desert – the merchant’s missing camel. The merchant gets his camel back, and the king issues a reprieve to the princes –and even appoints them his special advisers, in recognition of their talents.

In conclusion, their lives are spared, by what Walpole coined as serendipity, and they even owed their subsequent advisory careers to the King as a serendipitous occurrence in itself.

So why do we ask all our guests about serendipity?

One we are interested in their interpretation of it and examples thereof

To explore whether its more than happy accidents and that serendipity can be engineered. 

 What impact does upbringing have on a guest’s willingness to embrace risk, welcome ambiguity, confront fear, and to take the road less traveled? 

Where did their curiosity come from, was it innate or nurtured or both? How has that curiosity fueled their life journey? And how do they continue to feed it?

As the three princes tale demonstrates there is always something unexpected, at the core of serendipity, an unanticipated occurrence, a moment or an encounter that, that planning can not predict, that results in a positive outcome. 

This is contrary to our natural rationality, our preoccupation with the past, or focus on the future. 

Maybe it’s being ‘present’ and aware, and being mindful of the moment, and cultivating curiosity that creates the opportunity for serendipity? 

When we reflect on the serendipity that impacted the life and achievements of our guests, what do we see?

We witnessed a commitment to hard work, a willingness to delve deeper, to look further to solve problems, the determination to ask why? And why not? To see things for more than they may seem.  

We observed patience, persistent self-belief and the resolve to prove oneself in the face of adversity, and to turn that to advantage, we heard stories of courage, resistance to conformity, bias, and bigotry.  

They share the ability to self-reflect to question and define their purpose; compassion and care for others, the deep desire, determination, and discipline to change circumstances and the intentionality to create that change when needed 

Finally, all our guests demonstrated the characteristics of empathy, resilience and grit and an overriding belief that whatever someone describes as impossible, someone with the willpower, desire drive, belief and action taking attitude will at some point make it possible.   

Next week I’ll reflect on what we discussed regards mental wellness, social media and technology and the challenges our children face.  

That’s all for now folks. 


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