Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Serendipity Can Change Your Life!

My son, Jeff, graduated from college a number of years ago with a degree in Music Business; that is he concentrated on music performance (he plays the bass trombone), but also specialized in business and the business aspects of the music industry. After graduating, he found that music performance and music business opportunities were scarce, and so took what has grown to be a rewarding career in a non-music business area. Still, he greatly missed being able to play his trombone regularly. One evening he met some friends at a local watering hole, commiserating with them on the lack of trombone playing opportunities. At that particular time and in that particular place (where he seldom ever went), he got a tap on his shoulder from a complete stranger who said he overheard their conversation and happened to be the leader of a regional big-band that happened to play a gig on the town common that summer evening (that Jeff was totally unaware of) and were relaxing in the nearby bar afterward. This stranger said that they were always looking for talent, especially a bass trombonist, and offered him an opportunity to audition for a place in the big band. Jeff took that opportunity and happily played with the band for about four years. When he decided he had had it with New England weather and housing costs, and decided to move to Arizona, it turned out that his big band leader had a brother in Phoenix who directed two big bands out there. So Jeff was actually playing in a big band out there even before he started work. This is an example of serendipity (almost serendipity squared!), and it certainly changed Jeff’s life. He moved where he wanted to, played there in a big band, linked up with a Ska band, and has had numerous other opportunities to continue his love of playing music. All of this truly helped him to adapt to his new home much more easily.

Serendipity is sometimes defined as “good luck in making unexpected and fortunate discoveries.” Julius Comroe Jr., a biomedical researcher, defined it as, “looking in a haystack for a needle and discovering a Farmer’s Daughter.” My son didn’t find a farmer’s daughter, but still encountered an opportunity that was unlikely, at best, if he hadn’t been sitting in the right seat in the right bar on the right night at the right time. It’s funny how life works at times. The key is to recognize that serendipitous moment and seize it!

So where and how does serendipity strike? Well, it can happen almost anywhere and at any time. It can happen at a friend’s wedding, at a neighborhood block party, at a work-related or work-unrelated conference or trade show, at a networking event, in a meeting with a potential client or customer, at a football or baseball game. You never know when serendipity will strike. But you do need to recognize the opportunity that it presents and that it can change your life, for good or for bad. Too often, such a moment is never even recognized at all, much less recognizing the opportunity it presents. It is critical to recognize a serendipitous moment, and to seize the opportunity. Clearly you want to think about it and the opportunity it presents, but if you hesitate too long, or think too deeply, the opportunity will likely pass. You will generally have the time to carefully reflect after you’ve seized the opportunity, and then make a reasoned judgment, but if you don’t seize it when it pops up, it may likely be gone forever.

These blog posts are targeted primarily at knowledge workers and managers in corporate environments, although most of the topics are far more broadly applicable to almost all people in almost all professions. Knowledge workers tend to think rationally and logically, and to weigh the pros and cons, the plusses and minuses of virtually everything. They tend to think through things carefully and try to “calculate” the impact of everything.  This can be a good trait that makes good sense in many areas, but it’s also one of the reasons we have reputations of being a bit too boring, or too orderly, or too staid, or too anal, or not willing to take chances. But when serendipity strikes, you really need to seize the moment, even if, after reflection, you later decide that it doesn’t make sense for you. There are times to move carefully and there are moments where you must decide and act quickly. Serendipitous moments call for quick action.

So how do you prepare for this? Well, you don’t! You can’t add serendipity to your “to do” list or to your project plan. What you can do is recognize that “serendipity happens” (and doesn’t this sound better than “sh*t happens”J), and be open to it and willing to recognize the opportunity it can present, and act quickly on it.

How can it happen to you? Well, it could be a random circumstance, such as happened with Jeff. In such a case, recognize it, go with the flow, and, hopefully, enjoy the ride. It could also be an unexpected outcome of some of the work you are doing. Rather than simply saying, “that sucks” and moving on, be prepared to say, “that’s interesting” and explore what this unexpected outcome could mean, pro and con. Isaac Asimov said, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!”, but “That’s funny …”. Such unexpected outcomes may well be your serendipitous moment, if you can recognize them as such.

In life, you never know what is just around the corner. You can plan your life to the best of your ability, but life has a way of throwing you some curves. Some of these are the normal things that happen to us all – a snowstorm, a minor car accident, a delayed plane flight, an experiment that just fails. Some are problems that can hit us hard – unexpected health problems for you or a family member, an unexpected layoff, serious financial problems. To the best of our ability, we need to adapt and move on. But occasionally, something good comes from out of the blue, totally unexpected. If you can recognize it, and seize the opportunity, this is serendipity, and it can change your life!

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