View from the Loge: February 27

February 27, 2024

View from the Loge

February 27, 2024

This past Saturday, the New York Times’ daily email opened with a rumination on the joy of books the writer happened to find on stoops, friends’ guest rooms, or bargain bins. The author wrote these books “carry no obligation and no expectations, unlike that novel weighing down my night stand, from a friend who insisted that I love it. Or that other one, that won an award I should care about...” The writer used her stories about books to make a larger case for serendipity, things that happen by happenstance. 

Serendipity, it turns out, has a large body of research connected to it (the urge to turn something interesting into an academic subdiscipline can be overwhelming). In a 1991 piece in PubMed titled, Serendipity - Its Basis and Importance the author defined serendipity as, “the ability to make discoveries not purposely searched for.” In a 2015 piece, Sean Silver of the University of Michigan wrote about the “prehistory” of serendipity, calling it “sudden insights or conceptual breakthroughs that happen[s] by chance or accident.” In a 2022 review of management literature, Christian Busch wrote that serendipity is “the notion of making surprising and valuable discoveries.

Arguments about who first came up with the idea and how useful serendipity is seem to miss the point. (Apparently the term was coined by Horace Walpole in 1754, but Francis Bacon may have thought of it first). Accidentally finding something useful can be great - unexpected solutions to vexing problems are always welcome. And I suppose Bacon scholars will be happy there’s one more reason to praise their guy. But the best part of serendipity is that it doesn’t have to matter - the serendipity is the point. That a book you pick up seemingly at random ends up changing your life is pretty cool, but even if the book didn’t change your life but was just a good read, it would still be pretty cool.

Serendipity can be discovering a painter with whom you weren’t familiar because you ducked into a gallery to get out of the rain or to avoid an ex who you saw across the street. It can be finding a new band or running into an old friend. Serendipity can be its own reward.

All that serendipity requires is that you let it happen. You could avoid an ex by staring at your phone so hard you hope no one sees you, or you could go into the gallery. You can only see new things if you go on new walks, or look at old walks in new ways. Serendipity requires letting go of focus, demands, expectations, and your phone (it’s a theme). It requires you pay attention to that which you might not otherwise see, listening to that which you otherwise might not hear. Serendipity requires trusting chance.

As you hit midterms and papers, lectures and discussions you find by turns boring and maddening, and your phone keeps buzzing, pause. Walk, listen, see, and let serendipity find you. Enjoy what you stumble across, even if all it brings is a moment of joy. And who knows, it might result in a book that changes your life or breakthrough that changes everything.