Serendipity is the occurrence and development of favorable or beneficial events, seemingly by chance. It’s finding on the ground the exact amount of money you later discover you’re short at a restaurant. It’s a book falling open at precisely the chapter that you most need in your research project, and which you’ve been wondering about for ages. Serendipity is meeting somebody who grew up in the same small town as you while you are both living in an urban metropolis on the other side of the country. Whenever you find yourself saying, “It’s a small world” or “wow, what are the chances?” you’ve probably experienced some serendipity.
Similarly, a coincidence is a remarkable concurrence of events or circumstances with seemingly no casual connection to one another. The word ‘coincidence’ can be used affirmatively, as in, “It is a crazy coincidence that we wore the same colored shirts as each other three days in a row.” However, it is also common to use “coincidence” in the negative, such as, “It can’t be a coincidence that we wore the same colored shirts as each other three days in a row.” It can also be positive or negative, respectively: “I can’t believe we are both from the same village of under 500 inhabitants” or “I can’t believe my ex-boyfriend is here out of all the restaurants in this huge city.”
While random chance is an inherent part of both phenomena, the more of each we experience personally, the luckier we appear to be. Some have devised elaborate theories to explain these seemingly magical experiences, from Jung’s theory of synchronicity to those who would believe guardian angels are pulling the strings for us behind the scenes. What we really want to know, though, is whether or not these seemingly random events are actually connected somehow, or if they are truly just a result of statistical probabilities. Are there explanations for what we might perceive as luck, coincidence, and serendipity? And if so, is there a way to bring about more of them?
The “Serendipity Mindset”
What we’ve been calling luck till now could also be termed serendipity. This is like a chance encounter with randomness that leaves us feeling charmed and favored. Many people credit serendipity and coincidence with finding a dream job, meeting the love of their life or narrowly avoiding disaster and finding their lives saved. As we’ve seen, even things like major scientific breakthroughs occur as a result of a serendipitous accident. Things like Velcro, penicillin and microwave ovens are all inventions that required a little serendipity. In fact, the field of combinatorial chemistry is all about using accidental combinations to generate new and potentially useful compounds.
Just as we can court and nurture lucky opportunities, as well as be ready to strike when they appear, we can also make it more likely that serendipity falls into our laps. Connecting the dots this way is again, as you can probably guess, about mindset. Serendipity comes from the unknown – so it makes sense that our attitude towards the unexpected largely shapes our relationship with it and how much luck we experience.
We cannot create the unexpected, by definition, but we can create ideal conditions for the unexpected to thrive and take shape. Christian Busch, PhD is the author of the book The Serendipity Mindset, where he explores the role we have in cultivating the elements of a lucky, serendipitous life.
According to Busch, serendipity is made of 3 key ingredients:
The Trigger. This is when something unexpected or out of the ordinary happens. The trigger is a stimulus that is surprising, unusual, and somehow meaningful to you.
The Connection. Serendipity is about seemingly random connections and relationships. Still, we can create a link between the trigger and something else in our lives that, on the surface, seems unrelated to the trigger.
The Value. This is where the magic happens. We take the connection we’ve made and find in it a possible solution, a new insight into the situation, or a novel avenue to explore further.
As you can see, the above is about noticing what little threads and emergent surprises are happening in our world, and engaging with them actively. This means taking action but leaving plenty of room for things to evolve spontaneously, usually in ways we can’t predict or even understand. Sometimes, these steps will play out all on their own, but we can also take a more “half-formed” moment of serendipity and bring it to fruition by noticing it and capitalizing on it deliberately. It’s all about creating a life when serendipity is allowed to bubble up and where we ourselves are free to link up the dots when we see them. There may be countless opportunities flying by without our proactive effort right under our noses!
Some examples will show that this works in the real world.
Imagine you’re at a party and meeting a few new people. They ask what work you do, and you (remembering the surface area luck theory) excitedly say that you’re an adult education teacher, but you’re currently launching a new mental health program where you partner with recent graduates from the counselling course at your college. The other person says, “Oh, cool! My aunt used to do something like that, I think. She was an art teacher, but she was part of this foundation that did all sorts of things with community counseling, too.”
Now, you could easily let this little spark of connection fly by and never think of it again. After all, you don’t care about teaching art, and your college doesn’t even offer it. You could start talking about something else or end the conversation. But with a Serendipity mindset, you decide to grasp the trigger and make a connection. What is similar between what you’ve been told and what you’re doing in your own life currently? Quite a lot in this case.
You mention that you’re having some trouble launching because of a lack of premises to set anything up, and you’re unsure about a few legalities involved. How did this person’s aunt get around it? Can she tell you more? A few minutes into the conversation, you have sowed a seed. Perhaps in a week, they come back to you with a nice bit of luck – the aunt shares some information about a grant you can apply for that you knew nothing about previously – a grant that turns out to be exactly what you needed to get going in your project.
This little encounter might not seem like much, but with just a few tweaks to mindset, moments like these can make a world of difference to your life. Granted, there is nothing anyone can do to make sure that just the right person shows up at a party that day, and that you talk to them. But as we’ve seen, even in this regard, we can do things to help by increasing our exposure to luck and getting out there to talk to people, say yes to opportunities and generally get curious about the world.
If you pair this with a proactive, positive and curious mindset, you become a better conversationalist who listens and pays attention to potential triggers coming your way (rather than blabbing on about yourself, or getting bogged down in negativity). Because you’re open-minded, relaxed and curious, people share things with you and find your attitude infectious.
Something else to consider is that understanding the elements of luck can help you maximize serendipity, but you can also help by creating your own triggers. If someone at a party asks what you do, and you say, “I’m a teacher,” and leave it at that, you might completely miss out on a whole thread of opportunity. You never hear about the aunt. You never hear about the grant you could have applied for. The chance was always there – but you needed to be oriented in just the right way to “catch” it. Share details with people – you never know which one might be a trigger to follow somewhere interesting!
Luckily, getting good at sniffing out serendipity triggers is not all that different from being a good conversationist in general. It requires we proactively engage with others and open ourselves to letting the conversation evolve in unexpected and unplanned ways. It means listening properly to actually hear what you’re told, and allowing yourself to have preconceived ideas or beliefs challenged. A sense of humor, kindness, and a problem-solving attitude allow us to be active but not crush any emerging opportunity that doesn’t look quite like what anyone imagined.
Questions are great at keeping you open-minded, but be aware that the way you ask questions can shut down possibility. If you define your challenge and scope of possibility too early on, you close yourself off to emergent solutions you didn’t imagine previously. For example, if you go into a conversation with the foregone question, “How do I secure a venue for this project,” you are closing yourself off to the possibility of an unrelated solution, i.e., not in a venue but in a grant you hadn’t considered. It goes without saying that questions like, “what’s wrong with me that I can’t figure this out?” shut you off to solutions even further!
When you ask people questions, keep it open-ended. What are your thoughts? Any ideas? Of course, a big part of this is conveying a sense that you are actually listening to and care about the answers you’re given. Everyone knows how frustrating it is, for example in a work context, where “brainstorming” is just a box ticking exercise, and everyone knows that the boss has already decided what they’re going to do. Keep optimistic and believe that there are solutions and opportunities out there; you just have to find them.
• See other people as co-creators in your vision, and goldmines for valuable insights, new ideas and fresh perspectives. Share your story and get curious about theirs. If you can identify those “super connectors” in your social ecosystem, all the better.
• Don’t compartmentalize areas of your life in separate boxes. You might get a fantastic business idea while on vacation, or have an insight from work to bring to your family life. The more distant and novel the connection, the potentially more powerful.
• No coincidence is too small. If you notice something, or a connection is forming in your mind, explore it. Speak up about it. “I know this may sound crazy, but have you ever thought about…?”
• Look at problems in your world and ask how they could be reframed as opportunities. A restaurateur has a power outage one night, and the following night, he has a conversation with a blind person who tells them they’re a supertaster. He puts the two together: why not have an “in the dark” restaurant where people can focus on the food while the lights are out?
• Give yourself time every day for undirected, unstructured time where you just experience life and sink into aware observation. See what pops up in your own mind when you aren’t rushing from one thing to the next. See what you notice when you pause for a while and just observe what’s in front of you without any preconceptions.
• Be suspicious of conformity, easy answers and fixed ideas. Let go of the desire to control and notice not what is failing to happen according to plan but what is actually emerging. This is how Viagra was discovered – while testing the medicine for another purpose, a surprising side effect emerged. The successful medicine would not exist now if the researchers had fixated on what it wasn’t doing, instead of what it was!
• In conversations, don’t be afraid to come right out and ask, “so what is inspiring you right now?” or “what are your current challenges?” to cut to the chase.
• Get creative and mix things up. What would happen if you mixed two seemingly unrelated ideas, or completely deconstructed a story you had so you could rewrite it in a different order? Sometimes, all that’s needed to welcome fresh change is a shift in perspective. Have you ever noticed how often an “aha!” moment comes from simply being in an odd position – upside down, in a hotel bath, walking in a strange new city? If you’re stuck on a problem, go to a completely new café and think about it there for a while.
• Finally, don’t be in a rush to resolve ambiguity. Keep things open, and be relaxed and playful with what is unknown or tricky to nail down. Give opportunity seedlings time to grow and sprout.
Most people loathe the idea of networking or cheesy self-promotion, whether that’s in the business world or in dating. But simply meeting people is not enough – there is an art to making those connections fruitful for you. Don’t get discouraged if the hunt for serendipity doesn’t yield much at first. Be patient and let things incubate, Have faith in weak connections and invisible links set in motion.
Remember that your perspective today can reframe yesterday’s flop as today’s serendipity. Be resilient and keep it up. Serendipity will not thrive in an atmosphere of judgment, shame or foregone conclusions. Instead, let yourself make mistakes and play, relishing the wonder and joy you create when you let go of outcomes and focus instead on the process.
Someone walks into a crowded restaurant and sees there are no tables. Instead of leaving, on a whim they ask to sit at an empty seat at someone else’s table. They notice that this person is reading a book – they aren’t shy and speak up, sharing how they went to school with the author. This starts a conversation that ends up in the two being married two years later. It’s hard to imagine this moment of serendipity happening without the first person’s optimistic, easy-going and open-ended attitude, as well as their willingness to speak to a stranger. How many such opportunities are around us all the time, just one small choice or question away from being realized?
We can consider serendipity to be the combination of two main factors — seemingly improbable occurrences and positive personal feelings about them. Unexpectedly running into an old friend is serendipitous, especially because it might lead to a profitable professional relationship, a rekindled romance, or even just sharing an enjoyable meal. On the other hand, when you just as unexpectedly run into an old nemesis and are reminded why you disliked them in the first place — well, that’s not serendipitous in the slightest. You need the positive feelings associated for it to be considered good luck and not just an accident.
Stephen Makri is a prominent lecturer in the field of information interaction at City University London. He’s conducted several studies with the intention of better understanding what serendipity is, and the different ways people perceive it in their own lives.In a study published in:
Makri summed up his thoughts on the results of his studies and the relationship between luck and serendipity by saying: “I think that luck means different things to different people — some people use it as a synonym for serendipity. But others were clear that the two were different — luck was totally out of our control and there’s nothing that we can do to influence it. They think that serendipity can’t be controlled but it could be influenced.”
One of the interesting things about serendipity or other fortuitous events is that we often don’t realize just how beneficial they are until long after the fact. Sometimes, the only thing that distinguishes bad luck from good luck is the passage of time. Reminiscing on a lucky event in the past might lead us to an understanding or insight of how it served as a catalyst to create positive change for us. It can sometimes be rewarding, or perhaps even unsettling, to reflect on cause and effect in our own lives, and to realize how small and seemingly innocuous occurrences of the past have had massive impacts on our current selves. One more reason to be grateful and optimistic in your interpretations!
Let’s say that you usually eat lunch at your office, but one day you decide to go buy a sandwich from a local deli. You see an old friend from high school, Mary, as you're waiting in line. You and Mary make the usual small-talk while catching up, and when you tell Mary you’re working as a graphic designer, she says that she has another friend in the business she could connect you with. You say that you would appreciate that, exchange information, and go separate ways.
In a vacuum, the significance of this interaction is rather ambiguous, and calling it serendipitous would seem premature unless catching up with Mary was the most exciting thing to happen all day.
Now imagine that you and Mary weren’t that close, and re-establishing a relationship with her isn’t really worth the effort to you. You never follow up with her, and this is the end of the tale.
But what if, instead, you’ve been struggling to add new clients online, and you simply can’t pass up the networking opportunity. So, you follow up with Mary and get in touch with her friend. Mary’s recommendation starts you off on the right foot, and from there, you develop a business partnership and friendship with her friend that lasts for years.
Suppose you hadn’t chosen to eat at the deli instead of in your office like usual. In that case, you might never have run into Mary, connected with her friend, and benefited both professionally and personally for years as a result. Suddenly, this is one of the most serendipitous events of your life. It started with you not being closed off to the idea of trying something new (the deli) and also not writing Mary off just because she personally wasn’t very relevant to you at that moment.
The real difference between status quo and serendipity, however, was in the effort you put in afterward. There’s your chance to go in and extract value from random connections, and make them mean something. Being open, positive, and proactive makes people more likely to recognize and appreciate an opportunity so that they will take advantage of the potential good fortune they receive.
In reality, serendipitous events are simply good things that have a low probability of occurring. As such, we can increase our chances of serendipity just by putting ourselves in situations where — however improbable — good things can happen to us. You’re not going to have a moment of serendipity at home watching television, but just walking outside raises the probability one notch higher. Going to a social event with somebody you don’t hang out with often will bump it up again. Doing new things with different people constantly will all but guarantee a steady flow of opportunities that could be seen as serendipitous in hindsight. There’s also a case to be made for simply doing what you’d normally do, but in an unfamiliar way – when you’re out of your dally rut, you are different, and people respond to you differently.
Of course, the opposite is true as well. Bad luck is far more likely to fall upon you when you are constantly doing new things with different people than if you stayed at home safe and sound. But on the other hand, a lucky chain reaction may well begin with something that seems unfortunate on the surface. So it’s a reasonable conclusion that our perceptions about reality, and luck specifically, are important factors in how lucky or unlucky we end up being.
When you want to encompass the full spectrum of improbable occurrences that happen in our lives — from serendipitous to terribly misfortunate — you call them coincidences. All serendipity is a coincidence by virtue of it occurring despite having a low probability that it would, but not all coincidences are serendipitous, unfortunately.
There are two sides to the “I don’t believe in coincidences” coin, however. On one side, there are the people who believe that all coincidences are really just signs with a deeper meaning — whether it’s coming from the universe or some other force — pointing them toward some sort of personal enlightenment or enrichment. On the other side of the coin are those who say that believing in coincidences is a result of a lack of understanding about statistical probabilities.In:
Interestingly, coincidences shouldn’t be that surprising from a statistical point of view because they happen all the time. As statistician David Hand put it humorously in his book, The Improbability Principle, “Extremely improbable events are commonplace.”
What makes them seem crazy, strange, or extraordinary then? What makes us lose our minds over them and proclaim great or terrible luck? The answer is that mostly, we stink at calculating probabilities.
Our brains are in some ways just like computers — processing information as efficiently as they can and conserving as much energy as possible. But given our processing rate and all of the complexities of cause and effect, it is inefficient or even impossible for us to objectively calculate probabilities as we go about our daily lives. Remember that your brain is a pattern-seeking and meaning-making machine – and it has evolved to do those things very quickly. We can estimate, but our accuracy is not likely to be particularly noteworthy.
Add in the fact that there are now over 7.5 billion people globally, and the opportunities for statistical improbabilities to occur are everywhere. Throw in the internet and the power for social media to bring any two elements together, and the picture gets more and more interesting. Diaconis and Mosteller’s Law of Truly Large Numbers states, “With a large enough sample, any outrageous thing is likely to happen.” The odds that your one lottery ticket will win the Powerball are infinitesimally small, but the odds that somebody’s —anybody’s — ticket will win it are actually considerable. The winner will feel they have been blessed with incredibly good fortune, but the buyers of the millions of tickets that win nothing likely won’t think twice about it — after all, they didn’t have a high probability to win in the first place.
This also harkens back to the classic example of probability — if you were to put an infinite number of monkeys into a room with typewriters and wait for an infinite amount of time, it is a statistical eventuality that one of them would bang out a perfect recreation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
When you begin to look at coincidences as low probabilities, it actually begins to seem inevitable that you’ll experience some from time to time. When you think about all of the people you know and all the places you go, and then consider all of the places that all of the people you know are going — chances are good that you’ll bump into somebody you know, somewhere, at some point. For instance, if you live in the same city as someone, are near the same age, have overlapping friends and interests, and have similar diets, there really aren’t so many places you would both spend time.
The 49 times that we go to the grocery store, shop, and check out without seeing any friends or acquaintances don’t register, but that one time that you see an old teacher from a class you were in over a decade ago is probably going to give your brain a big jolt of nostalgia, thus highlighting the coincidence.
And those are just the coincidences that are actually realized. How many near-coincidences have you learned about after the fact? You might be talking to a friend and find out that you randomly ate lunch at the same restaurant on the same day, but sat on opposite sides of the restaurant and just didn’t see each other. When you start to include the close calls, the probability of some coincidence occurring at some point suddenly seems even greater.
The further we examine these ideas, the more apparent it becomes that luck might just be an inaccurate way of describing our interaction with these external events and circumstances. We may not have enough information to do the math behind the cause and effect that creates our present reality, but we can still accept that it is there. And when we factor in our positive feelings about particular outcomes, it’s not hard to see why we’d sometimes feel like there was a supernatural force looking out for us.
Psychiatrist and author of the book Connecting with Coincidence, Bernard Beitman, studied how various personality traits relate to views on coincidences. He found that people who describe themselves as religious, spiritual, or otherwise seeking a higher meaning in life have greater likelihoods of seeing coincidences in their lives. Likewise, self-referential (likely to relate external information to themselves) people are also prone to experience more coincidences. Coincidence, like luck, is a tool that humans use to make ourselves feel better when we feel sad, angry, or anxious by creating meaning from all the natural chaos around us.
According to Beitman, there are three categories of coincidences — environment-environment interactions, mind-environment interactions, and mind-mind interactions.
Environment-environment interactions are those coincidences that are objectively observable in the physical world. Your run into your high school sweetheart in a foreign city after not seeing each other in 10 years, which leads to a rekindled romance. These are the most obvious and easiest to understand of the coincidences.
Slightly less objective are the mind-environment interactions, where you randomly think about something or somebody, and then some event relating to that thing or person happens in your life. This might be thinking about a friend you haven’t caught up with in months and then receiving a text from that friend later the same day. These premonition-esque coincidences might feel cool, but they are also highly difficult to measure.
The last category, mind-mind interactions, is uncommon and might seem mystical. Beitman coined the term “simulpathity” to describe a mind-mind interaction in which one person experiences the pain or emotion of somebody else who is far away. This is most frequently reported between twins, and while it is the least associable form of coincidence with luck, it is certainly an interesting phenomenon to ponder.
It can be difficult to change your perception about coincidences. Maybe you don’t even want to because believing in them seems like a harmless thing people do to make themselves feel better. But in reality, understanding coincidences for what they are doesn’t necessarily change the feelings those coincidences elicit in us. You can understand that running into an old friend in an unexpected place is statistically probable to happen every once in a while, yet still, be grateful and excited when it does happen.
Furthermore, thinking in terms of probabilities allows you to manipulate those probabilities in your favor, if you so choose, by constantly doing new things with new people in different places so you have more opportunities to experience low-probability occurrences. Clearly, this correlates with greater luck.
With that in mind, let’s examine something referred to as the birthday paradox to better grasp the math behind our coincidences. Given a sample size of 23 people, there is a 50-50 chance that two people will have the same birthday. At first, this is counterintuitive. There are 365 days in a year, so how could such a small sample size create even odds? The reason this doesn’t immediately compute is that our brains struggle to do computation with exponents..:
Essentially, each of the 253 times that there is a chance for two people to have the same birthday, we are multiplying the fraction 364/365 by itself, reducing it ever so slightly and increasing the odds of two people out of the 23 having the same birthday.
We simply can’t do this calculation in our heads, much like the probabilities of the vast majority of the coincidental and serendipitous occurrences of our lives. But whether we can do the calculations or not, the math is still there, governing the seemingly random occurrences of our lives. And, of course, it’s easy to interpret much of this as fortuitous luck.
• Coincidence and serendipity are related to good luck. We all would like something beneficial and fortuitous to happen to us for seemingly no good reason. We can’t create positive random chances, but we can foster a “serendipity mindset” that helps us notice and take advantage of the chances that come our way.
• Serendipity means different things to different people, but generally, it is the combination of seemingly improbable occurrences plus positive personal feelings about them. We can cultivate a serendipity mindset by recognizing triggers in daily life, drawing connections to other unrelated areas, and finding potential value in that link.
• Making use of the unexpected requires that we are optimistic, open-ended, comfortable with ambiguity, extraverted, and good listeners, as well as willing to make mistakes or entertain unexpected outcomes. We need to be proactive and curious about what emerges spontaneously.
• The real difference between the status quo and serendipity is in the effort you put in following a chance happening, and the meaning you can assign to events after the fact.
• Statistician David Hand claims that although coincidences seem surprising, “extremely improbable events are commonplace.” It is only the limits of our human understanding of probability that makes coincidence seem more astonishing.
• Luck is a way of describing our interaction with random external events. Those who are religious or spiritual tend to experience more coincidences and perceive them differently. Similarly, self-referential people – i.e., those who tend to connect external events to themselves – also describe more coincidence experiences.