On Serendipity

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The English word “serendipity” has a fascinating origin, coined by Horace Walpole, a British politician, historian, and author. The first part of this post focuses on the origin, the second on some great insights about serendipity mentioned by Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha in the book “The Start-up of You”.

In a letter to his friend Horace Mann he wrote: “This discovery indeed is almost of that kind which I call Serendipity, a very expressive word, which as I have nothing better to tell you, I shall endeavor to explain to you: you will understand it better by the derivation than by the definition. I once read a silly fairy tale, called ‘The Three Princes of Serendip’: as their highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of….” Walpole’s memory of the tale (which, as it turns out, was not quite accurate) gave serendipity the meaning it retains to this day.

-Merriam Webster, Serendipity

Here’s the text of the ancient Persian fairy tale which tells of The Three Princes of Serendip (Sri Lanka), who were sent into the world to gain experience to complement their formal education.

No sooner do the three princes arrive abroad than they trace clues to identify precisely a camel they have never seen. They conclude that the camel is lame, blind in one eye, missing a tooth, carrying a pregnant woman, and bearing honey on one side and butter on the other. When they later encounter the merchant who has lost the camel, they report their observations to him. He accuses them of stealing the camel and takes them to the Emperor Beramo, where he demands punishment.

Beramo asks how they are able to give such an accurate description of the camel if they have never seen it. It is clear from the princes’ replies that they have used small clues to infer cleverly the nature of the camel.

Grass had been eaten from the side of the road where it was less green, so the princes had inferred that the camel was blind on the other side. Because there were lumps of chewed grass on the road that were the size of a camel’s tooth, they inferred they had fallen through the gap left by a missing tooth. The tracks showed the prints of only three feet, the fourth being dragged, indicating that the animal was lame. That butter was carried on one side of the camel and honey on the other was evident because ants had been attracted to melted butter on one side of the road and flies to spilled honey on the other.

As for the woman, one of the princes said: “I guessed that the camel must have carried a woman, because I had noticed that near the tracks where the animal had knelt down the imprint of a foot was visible. Because some urine was nearby, I wet my fingers and as a reaction to its odour I felt a sort of carnal concupiscence, which convinced me that the imprint was of a woman’s foot.”

“I guessed that the same woman must have been pregnant,” said another prince, “because I had noticed nearby handprints which were indicative that the woman, being pregnant, had helped herself up with her hands while urinating.”

At this moment, a traveller enters the scene to say that he has just found a missing camel wandering in the desert. Beramo spares the lives of the three princes, lavishes rich rewards on them, and appoints them to be his advisors.

-Wikipedia, The Three Princes of Serendip

Today we define serendipity as “luck that takes the form of finding valuable or pleasant things that are not looked for”. In his book “The Start-up of You”, LinkedIn co-founder and chairman Reid Hastings (w/Ben Casnocha) has a phenomenal discussion of serendipity in Ch.5. Here are a few highlights:

  • [The princes] got lucky, to be sure, but they also acted sagely and wisely in turning unexpected setbacks into opportunities. Winning the lottery is blind luck. Serendipity involves being alert to potential opportunity and acting on it.
  • Still, even if you are curious and alert, opportunities won’t just fall into your lap. Almost every case of serendipity and opportunity involves someone doing something.
  • The Princes of Serendip were not simply dallying their lives away in luxury in Sri Lanka on some convenient palace couch. They were out on the move, exploring, traveling wildly when they encountered their accidental good fortune.
  • When you do something, you stir the pot and introduce the possibility that seemingly random ideas, people, and places will collide and form new combinations and opportunities. By being in motion, you are spinning a web as wide and as tall as possible in order to catch any interesting opportunities that come your way.
  • “The best way to ensure that lucky things happen is to make sure a lot of things happen.” -Bo Peabody
  • Opportunities do not float like clouds. They are firmly attached to individuals. If you’re looking for an opportunity, you’re really looking for people. If you’re evaluating an opportunity, you’re really evaluating people. If you’re trying to marshal resources to go after an opportunity, you’re really trying to enlist the support and involvement of other people.

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