Serendipity Is Where You Find It

Dec. 21, 2004

Horace Walpole coined the word serendipity in 1754 after reading the Persian fairy tale Three Princes of Serendip, in which the princes had the unusual knack of making fortunate discoveries accidentally. I confess that Im a serendipitist of some experience. I always seem to be discovering interesting things at unusual times and places. And Ive learned to store them away with other odd bits of seemingly useful information. More times than not, they have turned out to be useful, even valuable. A serendipitist treasures idea junk: Mount Everest is 29,002 feet high. B.F. Skinner taught pigeons to play table tennis, using food as an incentive. The first Mikado of Japan was Jimmu. Darwin had an IQ of 210. Aspirin was invented by an Alsatian named Gerhart in 1853. Serendipitists are collectors. They keep files full of idea-making junk that often turns into gold later. Psychologists have an explanation for the idea potential in serendipity. They call it perception. Its the process of converting idea junk into idea magic. Serendipitists store this idea junk and later, with the application of something called apperception, combine two or more pieces of it into a new and unexpected idea. They do it by association, which often causes impressions of a feather to flock together. Some of these ideas prove to be good, and we implement them. Others are bad, and we refile the idea junk for possible future use. Success can earn membership in the Eureka Club. Thats a club I made up with Archimedes as its idol. You will remember that while Arch was taking a bath, his mental light bulb went on. He supposedly jumped from his tub and shouted, "Eureka!" (Translation: "I have found it!") Isaac Newton was admitted to the club when the apple fell on his head. Even the inventors of the hula hoop and the propellered beanie qualify. Among the most famous living members are Bill Gates and Andy Grove, so practicing serendipity makes cents. Consider, for example, that the airplane was not invented by the transportation industry, the Polaroid camera was not invented by the photographic-equipment industry, and synthetic fibers were not invented by the textile industry. All were developed by serendipitists from idea junk stored in their mental databases. All were outside-the-box thinkers. In my idea file I have a letter written by a young woman years ago in response to an ad we ran to find a secretary for the publisher of Foundry Management & Technology magazine. The letter said: "Dear Sir: Your letter appeals to me strongly, stronger than prepared mustard, as I have searched Europe, Airope, and Irope in quest of a company that can use my talents to advantage. "I have never found a man, woman, or typewriter that I cant whip either fancy or catch-as-catch-can. I write shorthand so fast I have to use a specially prepared pencil with a platinum point and a water-cooling attachment. My note pad is made of asbestos, ruled with sulfuric acid, and stitched with catgut. I run with my cutout open at all speeds and am, in fact, a guaranteed, double hydraulic-welded, drop-forged, and oil-tempered specimen of human lightning. . . . If you dare, hire me. "But unless you are fully prepared to pay well for my talent, dont bother. You see, Im so energized I cant stand still long enough to have my dresses fitted, and I wont be available long." What does this letter have to do with serendipity? It proves that you dont have to dream ideas of the magnitude of Archimedes Displacement of Water Theory, or the Law of Gravity, or even a Microsoft or an Intel. That application letter is a good example of a small serendipitous happening -- the chance meeting of a playful intellect and a not-so-playful job opening -- that turned out to be unexpectedly significant. You see, I hired the applicant -- not as a secretary, but as our corporate communications director. And she was terrific.

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