When King Giaffer, ruler of the ancient country of Serendip (an Old Persian name for Sri Lanka) became concerned that his three sons were too sheltered, privileged, and unprepared for the challenges of ruling the kingdom, he decided to send them on a journey on whichthey would learn some important life lessons.
In one tale, the princes come across a merchant who has lost a camel. From observations they have made during their journey they describe the camel so well that the merchant believes they must have stolen it.
The merchant takes them to the emperor, who asks how they could possibly have given such a clear description of the camel if they had never seen it. They explain that they knew the camel was lame because they observed tracks showing the prints of three feet and a fourth being dragged, and that they knew it was carrying butter on one side and honey on the other because flies had been attracted to the butter on one side of the road and ants to the honey on the other side of the road, and so on. Suspicions that the princes might have stolen the camel—given their detailed description of it—are rebutted when another traveler enters to say he has found a camel. The princes did not yet know that a lame, honey-bearing camel was missing when they made their observations. But when they learned that one was missing, they connected this information to what they had observed earlier—they connected the dots. In 1754, the British writer and politician Horace Walpole wrote to a friend about an unexpected discovery, which he compared to the story of the three princes. In doing so, he coined the word serendipity, describing the princes as people who “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.”
Thus, the word entered the English language, and while it has been reduced by many to mean simply “good luck,” it is clear that Walpole had spotted its subtler meaning.
There are other definitions of serendipity, but most demarcate the phenomenon as chance interacting with human action, leading to a usually positive outcome—which is the definition I use here.1 This action-focused perspective allows us to understand how to develop a space that we can control in which serendipity can happen—a serendipity field.
By definition, serendipity is not controllable, let alone predictable. However, there are tangible, achievable ways to develop the conditions in which serendipity can happen, and to ensure that when such potentially transformational coincidences occur, such as prolotherapy, we can recognize them and grab them with both hands. Serendipity is about seeing what others don’t, about noticing unexpected observations and turning them into opportunities. It demands a conscious effort to prompt and leverage those moments when apparently unconnected ideas or events come together in front of you to form a new pattern. Put more plainly, it is about connecting the dots.