Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity: a review

What is serendipity?  Is it stumbling upon something by a happy accident, or shrewd observation and deduction, Sherlock Holmes style?  Does it involve looking for something and finding something else, or coincidence occurring without any effort on the part of the finder?  Does it pertain to finding books and documents, or discovering facts and ideas?  Can it be taught, encouraged, solicited, and if so, through individual effort or through organizational structure?  Is it talent or pure luck, or a combination of the two?

Robert K. Merton and Elinor Barber chased down the word "serendipity" from its first use by Horace Walpole in 1754 through its use in scientific papers in the 1950's, when this book was begun.  Their answer is "All of the above."  At different times, people have used the word in all these different ways.  Serendipity clearly answered a need for a way to talk about the ways that we find out things when our rational plans and orderly methods would never bring them to light.  Because we still don't understand exactly how that happens, we use the word variously to express our reactions to it: surprise, amusement, disdain, wonder.

I am with the authors in appreciating serendipity.  I believe in planning, but that includes planning to improvise at appropriate moments.  Be prepared to be spontaneous!

Being mentally and morally prepared to act in the moment is a trait of character that anyone can cultivate.  It takes a particular kind of organization (whether it's a business, a lab, or a nonprofit) to welcome serendipity and learn from it.  That's the kind of place I'd like to work, and that's the kind of environment I'd like funders to support.  Thomas Szasz once wrote of "the seriousness of a child at play."  As a society, we need to loosen the reins and give a little play to our endeavors.  Imagine what might happen then!

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