Serendipity – More Sensemaking than Luck

While most of us tend to believe that serendipity is all about lucky breaks and luck smiling on us it is something more deeper and useful than that.

It is our ability to combine many seemingly unconnected observations into a meaningful whole rather than either analyzing what is happening in the present or trying to build or apply a preformed mental construct or model to make sense of the present. Serendipity greatly helps us avoid wrong or incomplete understanding of a situation.

Serendipity is about gaining deep insights. With such insights we would not only be able to make sense of the now but also find out what it lacks, which then helps us to imagine the future in a more constructive manner.

So, our present and our future depend so much on our ability to develop this skill of serendipity — a vital skill for the 21st century useful to anyone in understanding reality.

The lovely story about how the word serendipity came about is simply remarkable and I hope it would dispel doubts about serendipity that reside in the minds of many.

Amplify’d from

Horace Walpole, in 1754, retold an exciting old Arab tale . One fine day, he wrote, three princes from Serendip (modern-day Sri Lanka) were sent by their father on a prolonged journey to acquire practical experience as part of their training. Misfortune befell the princes when happening upon a camel driver. The driver inquired about a lost camel. Though the princes never saw the animal, they were nonetheless able to accurately describe it: it was blind in one eye, lacking a tooth, and lame. Further, the camel was carrying butter on one side and honey on the other, and was being ridden by a pregnant woman. Their description was so accurate that the camel owner accused the princes of having stolen his camel, and formally charged them in the emperor’s court. Yet, in the presence of Emperor Behram, it became clear that the princes were entirely innocent, having merely cleverly pieced together observations made while walking. They explained that they thought the camel blind in the right eye because the grass had been cropped only on the left side of the road. They inferred that it was missing a tooth from the bits of chewed grass scattered across the road. Its footprints seemed to suggest that the animal was lame and dragging one foot. Also, finding ants on one side of the road and flies on the other, they concluded that the camel must have been carrying butter on the ant’s side, and honey on other. Finally, as for the presence of a pregnant woman, a combination of carnal desires on the part of the princes, and imprints of hands on the ground sufficed to bring about this final deduction. (For more on the curious history of the word “serendipity,” dip into The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity by Robert K. Merton and Elinor Barber.)

The princes did far more than make chance observations. The tale is instructive because the princes relied on their ability to recombine a series of casual observations into something meaningful. And it is just this combinatorial skill — the ability to combine events or observations in meaningful ways — that differentiates serendipity from luck. Serendipity is to see meaningful combinations where others do not.




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