I teach a class on creative concepting most terms. It covers a wide range of things, the class allows for a lot of room in terms of what we do, but essentially we explore things like where ideas come from, how to make connections, finding ones voice. There are a couple of principle versions, one related to ideas and imagery, the other much more closely tied to words. This term we are principally dealing with words--how they function, ways they function, putting words together based on rhythm and sound, how they work with images, poetry, word games, lots of different directions essentially.
One of the components is simply about discovery of interesting words-the english language is continually on the move, expanding even as I write, and yet we are reducing the number of words we employ on a regular basis-partly because of utility, laziness, lack of education perhaps. So this term, as part of an exploration of vocabulary, we are exploring two aspects of words: swearing, because it is an interesting intersection of cultural dynamics-the collapsing and combining of the holy and the profane; and words we use but maybe don't really grasp the full meaning of. Case in point, serendipity. A word attributed to Horace Walpole, man of letters, politician and reviver of the gothic style (The Castle of Otranto). The word is usually translated as describing a sort of 'happy accident.' It's a difficult word to define actually, and unfortunately, that means that it is often under utilized. The word itself provides a way of thinking about things that can be really helpful in a number of areas in life, but particularly when it comes to strategy, creativity and the process of working things out.
Walpole apparently took the word from an ancient Persian tale that had been turned into an Italian story and then translated into English in the mid-16th century!! The story involves the search for a camel, it is found by the three princes (something reminiscent of the 3 wisemen here?) who constantly made discoveries by 'accidents and sagacity.'
The 'silly fairy tale' as Walpole called it, produced a word that quickly slipped into use, and perhaps if not mis-use, missed-use. Serendipity means more than a happy accident , which tends to denote simple randomness, and actually points us toward a deeper understanding of how discoveries can be made. All the way back to Seneca, thinkers have pointed out that luck seldom stands alone. "preparation meeting opportunity,' is how he put it (now I do agree with Nasser Nicholas Taleb that far too often luck is mistaken for skill, but that is a slightly different matter more linked to accomplishment than discover, and one I'll deal with elsewhere), the point being that discovery seldom happens by luck or happenstance alone. Walpole's creation of this new word/idea from the fairy tale reminds us that serendipitous discoveries are not just 'luck' but involve sagacious, or skillful interpretations of chance events.
To me this means a couple of things: one a need for open-mindedness (a skill way too undervalued in almost every world I participate in) and second, a commitment to harnessing every possible tool for the given quest. Easily said, but very difficult to live out because most of us tend to build walls and fences around our ideas once we are comfortable with them and move toward conservationist tendencies which often preclude openness to the new and unexpected answer. In the religious world Richar Rohr has noted that the 'last experience of god is often the greatest obstacle to the next experience of god,' the same could be said of any field really. The combination of openness to the unexpected and the commitment to 'sagacity' is rare, but by it camels are found.
On another note, it is said that Serendip was the Persian word for Sri Lanka, and translates into 'golden island,' which may hold yet more clues to the rich meaning of what openness may bring to all who seek that path.