Bean Musing

How to Maximize Serendipity


My personal experience with serendipity

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Serendipity has led me to many places.

One of them is an overseas education.

When I was 17, I wanted to be many things. In my long list of who I wanted to be, it did not include “to graduate from a university abroad,” because it was not within my realm of possibility.

Serendipitously, just before I decided to sign up for an art diploma, I received a generous financial offer to study A-levels. I took the offer. 17-year-old me was one to go with the flow.

When I started my A-levels program, I wanted to be a doctor because I thought I had the smarts for it.

In hindsight, please, don’t become a doctor for the sake of money or because it is what smart people do. You’d regret it many times over.

I was still thinking of studying locally, but when everyone around me was talking about studying overseas, I couldn’t help but think maybe that could be me.

It was around the same time I found out about financial aid offered by US universities. I read that if you’re “good enough,” you’d get to study on a full-ride, even for international students.

I had only a short amount of time to prepare, but I went ahead and tried it anyway. A bias to action was perhaps my strong suit then. Not only did I take all the entry exams (SAT, TOEFL, SAT subject tests) and wrote the essays, I also studied hard for my A-levels. While I put the UK application on the back burner since I did not have the money for it anyway, I still did all the necessary, because again, why not?

You might have guessed that I got a full-ride to study in the US.

I did not.

I got rejected by all the schools because naive me applied to only the Ivy Leagues. I got admitted to some UK schools, but the main hurdle remained the money…

…until the scholarship offer came.

In between applying for schools, studying, and taking tests, I was also applying for a string of scholarships. I was rejected by all of them. Only one institution gave me a chance, and it was on the back of my UK offer.

So, lucky me got a scholarship and had a good time before returning to Malaysia.

Was it serendipity? I think it is.

How to maximize serendipity?

A friend suggested using a linear equation as a proxy. It is a simple model but I think it works.

s = mt + c

s = serendipity

m = factors to increase serendipity

t = time

c = your starting point

The value of c depends on your predisposition, the environment you’re in, and your family background. If you’re born wealthy, you’re more likely to be at a higher starting point than someone who is not. If you’re shy and passive, the likelihood of you having a serendipitous encounter is lower.

The 3 elements of serendipity

Fortunately, the serendipity described by the equation is not a discrete event. It is something that can increase with time, provided you have the right recipe for m. I define m to be three factors.

Take the ancient legend about the discovery of cheese.

An Arabian merchant set out on a day’s journey across the desert. He carried his milk in a pouch that was made from a sheep’s stomach. After a long day, when he took out his pouch, he realized the milk has curdled into whey and curd (cheese) Not knowing what cheese was, he decided to give it a try, and he found the taste delightful. Later, it was found that the rennet in the lining of the pouch, combined with the heat of the sun, caused the milk to separate into curd and whey.

If the merchant had been narrow-minded, had not carried his milk that way, and had not been bothered to figure out why; perhaps we would not be enjoying cheese today.

While the three factors may sound like traits, there are steps you can take to enhance these traits, and hence serendipity.

How to increase open-mindedness

People are very open-minded about new things…as long as they are exactly like the old ones! — Charles Kettering

In Shane Snow’s book, Dream Team, he highlighted that there is a correlation between open-mindedness and the following activities:

  • Traveling
  • Living abroad for an extended period
  • Reading fictions
  • Practicing introspection

The first three activities require you to be someone who either actively seeks out a varying experience or someone who can see alternative experiences and opinions as potentially valid.

Introspection, on the other hand, encourages you to look inward and to excavate your ego. Some frameworks can help in this exercise, such as writing, Enneagram, etc.

Psychological tips from Benjamin Franklin: start your argument with, “I could be wrong, but…”

Saying this puts your opponent at ease, and sends a signal to your brain that perhaps you should deflate your confidence in your opinions.

How to increase inquisitiveness

The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. — Albert Einstein

As Albert Einstein rightly pointed out, asking questions is one way to increase inquisitiveness. What’s, How’s and Why’s can lead you to the gold mine called serendipity.

What if you don’t have interest in anything? Well, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi would like to have a word with you.

According to Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, one of the founders of the field of positive psychology and a pioneering researcher in the area of flow, nothing is interesting unless you pay attention to it.

Hence, to develop inquisitiveness, begin by making a conscious effort to focus your attention on something.

How to have a bias for action

The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one. — Mark Twain

Bias for action is one of Amazon’s values:

Bias for Action: Speed matters in business. Many decisions and actions are reversible and do not need extensive study. We value calculated risk-taking.

The first thing is to understand why you are not taking action.

Is it the crippling anxiety that comes with failure?

Is it due to laziness?

Like what is listed in Amazon’s values: many decisions and actions are reversible and do not need extensive study.

Cliché as it sounds, Nike has a point here.

Just do it.

Write the article you’ve been wanting to write. Learn the language you’ve been wanting to learn. Start producing art.

Serendipity wouldn’t happen if you don’t take action.

Also check out my previous post to read about ERE’s philosophy on serendipity.