Serendipity and Its Good Outcomes Don't Just Happen by Chance

Share |

My friend said something funny to me Saturday. He's house-sitting for another friend who doesn't have a TV or radio. I told him how much I enjoy radio—baseball, NPR, music—and he said, "She only listens to shows on apps; I have to convince her that it's okay to not always know what's coming next." 

That got me thinking. Do we plan enough for serendipity? That may be a bit of an oxymoron, but hear me out. Life seems so much more scripted today. Our days are filled with deadlines and meetings, our nights with stores, meetings and TV, and our weekends with errands, planned encounters and shuttling kids around. Technology has helped us to overplan.

I say this because it's one big reason that we should attend conferences—like the 40th Annual SIPA Conference, June 6-8 in Washington, D.C. Events produce the unknown—all mostly good. We meet people we wouldn't meet otherwise, hear about ideas that are new to us, and put ourselves in an atmosphere to experience serendipity. (The word comes from a fairy tale and thus has always been thought as a "fortunate" thing.)

I attended the Neal Awards last month, given by Connectiv, another group in the SIIA fold. By chance, before lunch I started chatting with Todd Dills, a senior editor at Randall-Reilly. We first spoke mostly about his living in Nashville and an arts nonprofit that his wife created.

But when he won the awards for Best Data Journalist and Best Range of Work by a Single Author, I cornered him to ask how he uses data in the articles he writes. Now he will be presenting that information at the SIPA Conference on this very important topic, with Jonathan Ray, director of analytics for Access Intelligence.

Knowing that I probably did not just invent this, I googled planned serendipity and sure enough, University College London (UCL) conducted a 2012 study "to design interactive systems that harness its power. By collecting and analyzing people's 'serendipity stories,' researchers...hoped to design an interactive system that makes us more prepared for recognizing serendipity when it happens and, crucially, supports us in acting on it."

Stories told to these researchers included:

  • a student being offered an internship at a journalism lab because someone from the lab noticed her enthusiastic journalism-related tweets;
  • an experimental chef getting the idea to create a sea-salt-cured mackerel dish when watching his daughter collect stones on the beach;
  • an architecture student watching a BBC documentary on honey bees and getting the idea of using the hexagonal shape of honeycomb to create a novel building design.

A researcher said: "By looking for patterns in people's memorable examples of serendipity, we've found that it is more than just a 'happy accident.' It also involves insight—an 'aha' moment of realization." There's even a humorous video on the UCL site of the interviewer asking students, "What Is Serendipty?" They list three elements:

1. Unexpected circumstances;

2. Insightful "aha" moment;

3. Valuable outcome.

"The people we interviewed benefited from their serendipitous experiences, not only by enhancing their knowledge, but also by saving time—serendipity propelled the interviewees forward at a faster pace than they would have travelled otherwise," said Dr. Stephann Makri. "Everybody can benefit from serendipity if they remain receptive to it and ready to act on it when it happens."

Of course, we have to put ourselves in places to encounter it. Will serendipity happen in my office today? Probably not. Will it happen at our Conference or at the INFO Local dinners Tuesday night in Atlanta, Boston and Washington, D.C.? Probably yes—sitting across from or next to someone you haven't encountered or at a roundtable or reception.

The UCL researchers were working on a mobile app aimed at creating opportunities for people to experience serendipity, but I can't find any updates. An app might not be needed for this one.

Ronn Are you subscribed to the SIPAlert Daily?
If not, you're missing out on daily strategies, tips, profiles and case studies that can build your audience and increase revenue. To sign up, please contact Nevena Jovanovic.

Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…