As I’ve been getting ready for my ‘sabbatical’ and BIF-7, the role of serendipity has been top of mind. Serendipity is a hot topic, especially its role in innovation. One of the best reads isJohn Hagel & John Seely Brown’s book, The Power of Pull.
Serendipity is loosely defined as a “happy accident”. Horace Walpole created the word in a letter to Horace Mann on January 28, 1754 stating, “This discovery, indeed, is almost of that kind which I call Serendipity, a very expressive word.” The word is based on a Persian fairy tale from the 14th century titled The Three Princes of Serendip “whose heroes were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.”  Serendip is the old name for Ceylon now known as Sri Lanka. It stems from the Arabic Sarandib originating from the Sanskrit Simhaladvipa that translates to “Dwelling Place of Lions Island” (source: Wikipedia). Even the origin of the word is serendipitous!
The cycle of serendipity (or not) came to me while having coffee yesterday with Valdis Krebs: “what you know depends a lot on who you know which depends a lot on what you know which depends a lot on who you know”…iteratively. If you stay within those confines, your network remains fairly constant and self-selected. Your chances of learning something new, of encountering ‘happy accidents’ is reduced, perhaps not zero, but not high. It’s when you venture outside of that circle that your network, and knowledge, starts to expand - you ‘know’ more people so you ‘learn’ more which leads to knowing more people and on and on.
As I reflect upon how I know what I know, almost all of that knowledge & network has been serendipitous - Random Collisions of Unusual Suspects (#RCUS), to quote Saul Kaplan. Let’s look at Random (and then examine the other words over the next few weeks before BIF-7). The OED defines Random as “Having no definite aim or purpose; not sent or guided in a particular direction; made, done, occurring, etc., without method or conscious choice; haphazard.” Originating in the 14th Century with an unclear origin, it meant impetuosity, sudden speed, violence. In the mid 17th Century, it took on the meaning of haphazard, from the Old French randon (v. randir “run impetuously, fast”) from the Frankish rant “running” from the prehistoric German randa. But here’s where I think it gets very interesting. Originally, randa meant ‘edge’ – which lead the English rand, an obsolete term for ‘edge’ (now the South African currency).
It is this last, or very very early, meaning of ‘edge’ that intrigues me. Innovation, especially disruptive innovation, comes from the edges, from the fringes. So, for the next week or so, just try to put yourself in Random situations – situations that are not planned, not directed and even perhaps at the edge of your usual business or personal world and see what happens. If you’re willing, please share in the comments or here.
p.s. I am a bit enamored with the entomology of words – it shows the flow and evolution of language which means of people, of societies, of commerce (words moving from Sanskrit to Arabic, from German to French to English, etc.), of culture…of our own past and future.