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Wednesday, November 21, 2012


Serendipity (n.) refers to the faculty of making fortunate and unexpected discoveries by accident. Specifically, it involves the act of finding something useful without specifically searching for it in the first place. Erin McKean stated, “Serendipity is when you find things you weren’t looking for because finding what you are looking for is so damn difficult.” [1] Thus, one might claim that serendipities have the requirements of being unsought, unintended and unexpected learning experiences. Horace Walpole coined the term in 1754, in a letter he wrote to Horance Mann (dated January 28th) where he said he formed it from the Persian fairy-tale “The Three Princes of Serendip” whose heroes "were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of." [2] The term originates from many different places. It most prominently s derived from the word Serendip, which is an old name for Ceylon or modern Sri Lanka. It also originates from the Arabic Sarandib and from Sanskrit Simhaladvipa, which means "Dwelling-Place-of-Lions Island". [2]

One crucial aspect of Horace Walpole’s definition that is often missed in discussions of the word in the present is the word “sagacious”. [2] Serendipity originally mentions the need for an individual to be “sagacious” enough to link together apparently innocuous facts to arrive at a valuable conclusion. Due to this, various modern thinkers postulate that the term has an avid influence on science, technology and even business. This term has sprung the idea that science and the scientific method itself can be prepared by other means to harness luck and make discoveries. In the business world, the term is a key concept in Competitive Intelligence because it is an important tool in avoiding Blind Spots. Ikujiro Nonaka has pointed out that the serendipitous quality of innovation is a key factor. Thus, he associates the success of Japanese enterprises to their skills in creating knowledge not only by handling information but by "tapping the tacit and often highly subjective insights, intuitions, and hunches of individual employees and making those insights available for testing and use by the company as a whole". [3]

It can be proposed that for a serendipitous outcome to occur, the internal and external conditions have to be correct. A prepared mind, for one, that is ready to make a connection to a serendipitous event is an internal condition. There is also essentially a requirement for the implicit awareness of a need or opportunity for making the connections. On the other hand, external conditions that are required would be a physical or electronic environment such as a bookstore, a park, the internet etc.

There are also numerous historical examples of the term. The following two examples are ones in which luck, agency and organization have converged to form the serendipitous outcome. For one, Columbus was searching for a new trade route to the Orient when, in 1942, he unexpectedly stumbled upon the Americas. Likewise, Sir Alexander Fleming was formulating research on influenza, when in 1922, he discovered penicillin. [4]

Serendipity also proves to have an important connection to the randomness of fate, destiny and luck. Due to this, in modern day, many extrapolate the term as to presenting the argument of being the answer to finding love.

[1] "Erin McKean: The joy of lexicography | Video on TED.com." TED: Ideas worth spreading. http://www.ted.com/talks/erin_mckean_redefines_the_dictionary.html (accessed November 10, 2012).
[2] "Online Etymology Dictionary." Online Etymology Dictionary. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=serendipity&allowed_in_frame=0 (accessed November 10, 2012).
[3] "The Art of Serendipity in BPM Case Management and Enterprise Social." BPM REDUX. https://bpmredux.wordpress.com/2012/08/23/the-art-of-serendipity-in-bpm-case-management-and-enterprise-social/ (accessed November 10, 2012).
[4] "Entrepreneurship & Innovation." Entrepreneurship & Innovation. www2.druid.dk/conferences/viewpaper.php?id=3235&cf=29 (accessed November 10, 2012). 

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