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Serendipity: [ser-uh-n-dip-i-tee]


1. an aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident.

2. good fortune; luck.

3. fortunate happenstance; happy accident

4. finding something good without looking for it.

Have you ever found yourself in the right place at the right time all because something happened to change the course of your life? A street that was closed and you were rerouted a different way, an event that was cancelled and you changed your plans, or even something bad happened that you later found out altered your life for good?

Throughout history new advances have been discovered and inventions stumbled upon because of serendipity. Take Alexander Fleming's accidental discovery of penicillin, Percy Spencer's happenstance inventing the microwave, or Spencer Silver's sticky situation accidentally creating the first Post-it Note. These are all attributed to fortunate happenstance. Read Dr. Birgit Draeger's experience with serendipity.

"Dr Draeger had a dream one night suggesting that, rather than stripping the bark from the birch, she should look at the bark of the plane tree, where she would find an alternative source of the same chemical.

The clever thing about plane trees is that, unlike birch, they shed their bark naturally. Upon investigation, Dr Draeger found that plane tree bark did indeed contain betulinic acid – 10 times more than in birch bark, in fact.

But there's a rational explanation for this apparently mystical insight. Years before her dream, Dr Draeger had encountered the chemical structure of platantic acid, which is found in plane trees and shares several chemical features with betulinic acid. The two compounds are almost chemical cousins. Her brain had dug out this obscure memory and run with it while she slept.

Dr Draeger's experience illustrates that many such happy "accidents" aren't really accidental at all: rather, they represent an unexpected fruition of underlying thought processes. Serendipity may take us by surprise, but it's still, frequently, a product of our own ability to reason."

These unexpected, explainable eureka moments are powerful defining moments. Perfect snapshots of time. The happy glitter sprinkled on life.

In all of these examples, nobody set out to accomplish these major discoveries, but as a result of happenstance, life took them down another path. Whether these scenarios are a perfect storm of thought, or a calculated event for a bigger spiritual plan, serendipity undeniably exists. Good things can come from unfortunate or misleading life events.

A Persian Fairy Tale

The origin of the word serendipity is serendipity itself. In 1754 Horace Walpole, son of Britain's prime minister, was a prolific inventor of new words added to the Oxford English Dictionary. His most celebrated word was "Serendipity", meaning, "the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident". Horace coined this new word based on the heroes of a fairy tale called the Three Princes of Serendip. The Three Princes of Serendip went out looking for treasure. They didn't find what they were looking for, but instead they found something more valuable. Listen to their story.

‘The Three Princes of Serendip’ is one of the earliest detective stories in existence: it tells of how three princes track down a missing camel through luck and good fortune. However, that’s not the whole truth. The three princes in the story do actually utilise what we would now call forensic deduction – almost Sherlockian in its method – and that, ironically, is what gets them into trouble. As they are travelling through the desert, they meet a merchant whose camel has gone missing. Having tracked the animal’s progress through the land, the princes can describe the merchant’s lost camel in such striking detail that he suspects them of having stolen it. Hauling them before the king, Bahram Gur, the merchant publicly accuses the princes of theft, and the king sentences them to death – unless they can produce the camel and return it to its owner.

Among the details of the camel that the princes had correctly managed to deduce, the princes identified that it was lame in one leg, blind in one eye, and had a missing tooth. They deduced these distinguishing features from the patches of grass at which the camel had grazed, and the imprints it had left in the ground. We say ‘deduced’ but here – as with the process of detection used by Sherlock Holmes – ‘deduction’ is actually the wrong word. It’s actually ‘abduction’ – we explain why in this post on Sherlock Holmes.

What happens to the princes in the end? Well (spoiler alert) their lives are ultimately spared, when a traveler shows up and announces that he has seen a camel wandering in the desert – the merchant’s missing camel. The merchant gets his camel back, and the king issues a reprieve to the princes – indeed, he even appoints them his special advisers, in recognition of their talents."

Serendipitously Surprised

My brush with serendipity was years in the making. I had worked my way up from working as an Instructional Coach at a school site, to the district office as a Technology Integration Specialist. Little did I know that I had stepped right into an unethical and hostile work environment. This was putting it lightly. The first three years, I went with the flow, learned to look the other way, and brushed elbows with people trying to learn the social game. I tolerated a LOT, but then I reached an ethical threshold and needed to find my way out. As I stood up for what was right, I was ostracized, when I advocated for ethics I was targeted, and when I was no longer willing to go along with the corruption I was dunked. I was at an all time low in my career, and I panicked. I didn't know how to escape other than to reflect on my own contribution to the situation, and sharpen my own skills. And that is what I did. I poured myself into reading articles, books, and seeking out a network of professionals to learn and grow from. I became more active on LinkedIn connecting with old friends, new friends, and reading all their professional interactions.

One day on a LinkedIn news thread I saw Dr. Rick Jetter's book, Sutures of the Mind, come across as a newly published book. The title and cover was catchy and I knew he was an educational leader. It appealed to me, so I bought it. Little did I know that this purchase would alter the direction of my life forever. I thought it was an educational leadership book that would help me chip away at the cement shoes that had landed me at the bottom of the educational leadership dunk tank. But to my surprise it was as a spiritual book on mindfulness. It focused on a daily reflective journey of action to transform adversity. It was serendipity. I needed it and didn't even know it. The rest is history, I reached out to Dr. Jetter and thanked him, and from there our Dunk Tank friendship blossomed. I will never forget the day that I looked at the message in my LinkedIn inbox. He simply asked me, "Hey do you want to do this thing with me? Do you want to be my co-author?" I thought I was networking with professionals to read articles and be prepared for my next career move, I had no intention of becoming a published author. Sure publishing an article was on my eventual educational bucket list years down the road once I had earned a title of some sort, but it was not on my radar. Escaping the School Leader's Dunk Tank was serendipity. For me it was an opportunity to heal, share, and prevent others from the trauma I had experienced. And now we are hosting Tweet chats, Podcasts, writing weekly articles for School Leader's Now, and fielding daily messages, emails, and phone calls from leaders around the world that want to be heard and that want to lead the Dunk Tank Revolution. Serendipity happened. I can't explain it. I won't ever understand why it happened. But one thing I know for sure is that Dr. Jetter and I will use this gift that life gave us, to support every educator, serve every leader, to ensure excellence for all students. We have a new lease on life and know that everything happens for a reason. And sometimes it turns out to be serendipity!

What I do know is this...if you do what's right and give it your best, life will just work out the rest. When something goes awry, when life sends you off in a different direction, pause, wait, listen and reflect. There just may be something BIGGER than yourself and GREATER than you could have ever imagined waiting for you around the corner.

Love what you do, embrace the good and the bad, and always do what is right!


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