Serendipity is a term that’s not easily translatable. In fact, it has been voted as one of the 10 English words hardest to translate.

According to the Oxford dictionary it was coined in 1754 by Horace Walpole, “suggested by The Three Princes of Serendip, the title of a fairy tale in which the heroes ‘were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of’.

In modern English one could say it simply means “discovering something positive one didn’t expect”.

What does it have to do with career-planning?

A lot, apparently.

The Old  School Way

In my grandfather’s times, people sat off their obligatory basic schooling (~9-10 years) and started working as apprentices. Only a handful went to university to become doctors, lawyers, etc.

Those who finished their apprenticeship and graduated from university worked in their field for decade after decade, until they themselves became master craftsmen or professors, educating the next generation.

The concept of planning a personal career was foreign, back then – one had to arrange oneself with what there was. Survival came first, maintaining one’s position, second.

If there was any change, it consisted of moving vertically, from trainee to trainer, from worker to foreman,etc. or horizontally from one workplace to another in the same field.

Like on a chessboard, both the board and the moves it allowed could be predicted. Black was black. White was white.

But this was soon to change…

The Quantum Jump Of Non-Linear Organization

With the acceleration of technological developments, almost every field started to change.

The technical knowledge a young apprentice had acquired suddenly was outdated only years later. Faced with new tools, devices and organizational methods, a person had to stay on their toes and keep on learning – not even in order to rise in the new hierarchies but just to keep the status quo.

Computers and the digital revolution kicked this trend into over-drive and suddenly black could be white and white could be black. Furthermore, as with Schroedinger’s cat, it became impossible to say which was which at any particular moment.

The map of employment was disrupted, suspended in a flicker of opportunities.

Planning a career became a race around constantly-shifting coordinates.

It has been like this for quite a while and only now, bit by bit we begin to realize that we’re navigating the present with maps of the past.

In our schools and universities these maps still largely dictate the way things are done: how and what we’re supposed to learn and how to go about finding a job when we have jumped through all the hoops.

No Maps For These Territories

In a linear map you are at point A and draw a straight line to point B, C and D, etc.

If the territory is predictable and fairly stable, these maps will lead to the desired result.

But if the territory is changing quicker than you can make or update your maps, they will lead you anywhere but where you want to be.

This territory is the world we live in today.

Environments, governments, employment, education, technology – everything is changing.

For lack of not having a new way to navigate, we cling to our old maps – linear doodles in a complex non-linear landscape.

Does this mean that we’re doomed to run in circles? Clearly, the answer is no – not if we find new ways to navigate…

As Robert X. Cringely wrote on his blog, this new territory “requires an educated mind that allows for serendipity to play a large role in discovering opportunities and staying just outside of your comfort zone.”

Regarding employment, what does that mean?

Just sitting around and waiting for wonders?

Certainly not.

Serendipity doesn’t mean being passive.

The opposite is the case.

It means shooting your arrow in one direction, but instead of expecting it to hit a linear target (A->B) and fret or fume if it doesn’t, you are open to opportunities from all directions. (yes, even things outside your comfort zone)

This doesn’t mean that a person loses his focus, scattering consistent action in fuzzy blows of indetermination.

It simply means that while having a goal, one doesn’t go for it directly but immerses oneself in fields of likelihood, instead, from which many opportunities will arise that lead to other fields, and so on and so forth – until one either reaches the goal (and suddenly finds it undesirable, perhaps) or accidentally stumbles over a dream-occupation never thought about until that  moment one finds it.

Cringely, for example, notes that moving to a city alive with a work-culture that you’d like to be in doesn’t guarantee that you will get a job but it will get more likely. This is only the tip of the ice-berg, of course, especially considering that more and more people are becoming freelancers and working online, outside of this geographical limitation. But the principle is the same, even there.

The catch is that we often don’t know what we really want until it stares us right into the face.

Even if we do, it doesn’t mean that this is necessarily the best thing for us to do at the moment.

We have to find ways to combine goal-oriented thinking and action with developing a field-awareness for serendipitous effects. At the moment, our cultural operating system still favors the former over the latter.

Reality, however, might look very different.

img: AttributionNoncommercial Some rights reserved by marco|g

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