One day many years ago, my father saw my mother at the offices of the Saturday Review of Literature in New York City and sat on his hat. It was a chance meeting — my mother, an editorial assistant at the magazine, happened to walk by as my father, then a reporter for The New York Times, was waiting in the corridor to see a friend. He was, the story goes, smitten.
The initial spark notwithstanding, the two had little to talk about on their first date, at a French bistro. “We were both, in our own way, shy,” my mother recalled recently. Eager to ignite conversation, my father asked my mother if she’d read any good books lately. She had: “Cry, the Beloved Country,” by Alan Paton. Relieved, my father ripped a piece of paper out of his reporter’s notebook. “Write down a sentence you remember,” he said. “And I’ll do the same.”
The payoff for this literary tête-à-tête? Destiny. The same sentence, lodged deep in a 250-page book teeming with memorable language, had made an impression on both of them: “Nothing is ever quiet, except for fools.”
Last August, my parents marked their 64th wedding anniversary.
My parents’ “Beloved” story is embedded in my DNA. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a thing for serendipity — the unpredictable connection or discovery that spurs something new. I have come to think of serendipity as luck’s whimsical sidekick. Luck befalls us in bouts of good (you win the raffle at work) and bad (a deer darts in front of your car). Serendipity is something we fashion from a chance event — a happy accident pulsating with possibility.
“Serendipity,” the word, has tremendous appeal. It’s both soothing and jaunty — a winning mélange of “serenity” and “zippy.” Business owners seem to love it, given the plethora of Serendipity wineries, hotels, and bridal shops. The Manhattan restaurant Serendipity3 (”3″ for its trio of original owners) has certainly had a good run with it. The establishment has lured customers with its eclectic decor, its signature Frrrozen Hot Chocolate, and its alluring name — anything can happen here! — for 68 years. Where else would Hollywood producers have filmed the dessert flirt scene with John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale in the 2001 movie “Serendipity,” a rom-com ode to the mellifluous word and the surprises it promises to reveal?
Chance events have a long and enigmatic history, dotting our lives as immeasurably as the stars festoon the skies. But we can pinpoint one thing about serendipity with evidence: the origin of the word. Horace Walpole, the British intellectual and 4th Earl of Orford, coined “serendipity” in a letter dated Jan. 28, 1754. While reading a Persian folktale, “The Three Princes of Serendip” (now Sri Lanka), Walpole wrote, he noticed that the three royals in the story were “always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of.” He proposed a word — and a “very expressive” one, Walpole noted proudly — to describe this phenomenon.
It took time for “serendipity” to meander into the public square. The word did not appear in print until the publication of Walpole’s letters in 1833, and its use was confined largely to Anglo-American literary circles in the decades that followed. By the mid-20th century, however, scientists had discovered “serendipity” as an apt way to describe the many unexpected findings in their field.
Russian chemist Constantin Fahlberg, for example, discovered during dinner one night in 1879 that a substance that had spilled onto his hands in the lab had an unusually sweet taste; he developed it into saccharin. Alexander Fleming isolated penicillin in 1928 after noticing that a strange-looking and potent mold had dropped into his petri dish while he was away on summer holiday. The once obscure “serendipity” soon attained the stature of “riotous popularity,” sociologist Robert Merton noted in his 2004 book “The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity,” coauthored with historian Elinor Barber.
Romances are often born of serendipity; so, too, are technological innovations (Velcro, Teflon, X-rays) and creative compositions. Grandma Moses’ paintings might never have gained a following (her canned fruits and raspberry jam won a prize at the local fair; her artwork didn’t) had it not been for Louis Caldor, a traveling collector who happened on her landscapes in a drugstore display in the tiny town of Hoosick Falls, N.Y., and brought them to a dealer in Manhattan. Author Laura Hillenbrand stumbled across the story of Olympic runner and World War II bombardier Louis Zamperini — the subject of her 2010 best-seller “Unbroken” — while doing research for her 1999 book “Seabiscuit.” “As I hunted for information on the horse,” she told The New Yorker, “I kept coming across stories about this kid runner named Zamperini.”
Anecdotes like these illustrate how serendipity plays out. They inspire and offer hope. But there’s still much to learn about serendipity, the phenomenon. How does one study it with academic rigor? And why is it important? To help answer these questions, Samantha Copeland, an assistant professor at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, cofounded, in 2016, The Serendipity Society, an online platform dedicated to serendipity research and networking.
Because there is no established canon of serendipity studies, Copeland, along with cochair Wendy Ross, a serendipity researcher at London Metropolitan University in Britain, is using the website to gather strands of research from different fields — computer science, museum studies, software design, human resources — to build a discipline. The society also hosts online symposia; this year’s event, “Serendipity and the City,” explored how urban design can foster chance encounters among city dwellers.
Experience shows that allowing for the unexpected can spark relationships and galvanize innovation. Nobel Prize winners talk about serendipity all the time, says Copeland, and yet it isn’t encouraged proactively enough because it involves risk and, potentially, failure. She wants to make room for chance — to view it as a tool rather than an obstacle. This requires relinquishing definitive goals and allowing for a more open-ended process. “I think we have to let go, a little bit, of endpoints,” she says.
Copeland is visibly excited when she talks about the society’s growing list of members, from places like Ningbo, China, and Tallinn, Estonia. They include physicists, artists, entrepreneurs, economists, educators, architects, and archivists. She says interest in the study of serendipity is surging, with COVID-19 as an instigator. The pandemic jettisoned plans, schedules, and goals. Control, that thing we had come to depend on, was no longer as foolproof as it seemed. Now, leaders across a variety of disciplines are coming to a realization: Moving forward, we need to accept uncertainty and find the good in it. We need to embrace serendipity. “It’s a huge discussion, and it’s going to get even bigger,” says Copeland. “In the last five years I’ve watched it rocket. I feel like in the next five years it’s going to take off even more.”
One of serendipity’s most important features is human effort — the “sagacity” that Walpole mentioned centuries ago. On its own, serendipity is as transient as a bird flitting between tree branches or a child’s soapy bubble blown into the air; the key is that we grasp hold and do something with these fleeting moments. Have an impromptu conversation with a stranger at a coffee shop and walk away? That could turn out to be an opportunity neglected, or “lost serendipity,” as researchers refer to it. Ask for a card, follow up, and meet again? Who knows? Maybe dialogue will turn into a job lead.
Does this mean that serendipity isn’t quite as mystical as we think? That we may have some influence over it? Yes, says Christian Busch, director of the SPS Center for Global Affairs at New York University. In his book “The Serendipity Mindset,” Busch lays out a strategy for actively cultivating serendipity. In it, he draws from lessons he learned after years of working with senior executives and innovators who believed that their own good fortune was spurred by mere coincidence. Often, they hadn’t realized that they had played a role.
We have the capacity to kindle serendipity by making small behavioral changes, says Busch. See the birds. Follow the bubbles. Be curious. When you meet people, skip the boring go-tos (“What do you do?”) and ask questions that unravel ideas and that might even reveal shared interests: “What’s on your mind?” “What are you inspired by right now?” A simple “why?” can lead to musings from one person that elicit revelations in the other. “If you create the right conditions for serendipity, it’s far more likely that something will happen,” says Busch.
One key factor is how we view the unknown. People who are intellectually inquisitive, imaginative, creative, and open to new experiences invite opportunity into their lives. I’m particularly fond of the story of Masako Wakamiya, who was born in Tokyo in 1935. After retiring from her banking job, Wakamiya began teaching seniors how to use smartphones and soon realized that there were no apps targeted to her age group. In 2017, when she was in her early 80s, Wakamiya launched Hinadan, a mobile game featuring traditional Japanese dolls. “Curiosity makes me jump quickly to try new things,” she said in a 2018 interview with an online magazine published by the government of Japan. ”I don’t make walls to shut out unknown worlds.”
Opting out of complacency doesn’t mean you have to be wildly extroverted. “A lot of times, serendipity comes from calm sources,” Busch told me. This is true of one of the greatest serendipitous moments in musical history. When Pablo Casals was 13 years old, he wandered into a music shop near the Barcelona harbor to browse for new compositions. “Suddenly I came upon a sheaf of pages, crumbled and discolored with age,” he recalled in his memoir, “Joys and Sorrows.” “They were unaccompanied suites by Johann Sebastian Bach — for the cello only! I looked at them with wonder: Six Suites for Violoncello Solo. What magic and mystery, I thought, were hidden in those words?”
Written around 1720, Bach’s cello suites had never been played in their entirety; Casals was the first to perform any of them from beginning to end. The suites, which require a leap of technical skill and imagination, are now considered the pinnacle of a cellist’s repertoire. Yo-Yo Ma, who calls Casals his hero, began learning the music as a child and has since recorded the suites three times. Later this week, Ma will perform them in Paris for the 34th time in four years as part of his round-the-world tour, the Bach Project.
Casals bequeathed Bach’s masterpiece to humanity. Who knows what magic lies ahead for the rest of us? If we approach the unexpected with curiosity — what can I learn from this? — we can find joy, says Busch. “Serendipity is not something that happens passively; it’s something we can be part of shaping.” In a world challenged by political turmoil, environmental threats, and international instability, serendipity may well be our new lifeline.
Claudia Kalb is the author of “Spark: How Genius Ignites, From Child Prodigies to Late Bloomers.” Follow her on Twitter @claudiakalb.