The Bliss of Serendipity

Recently, after a long deep break, I got back in touch with an old friend of mine who is at the same time an ex contact from LinkedIn and Facebook, when I came back to him and to a couple of friends regarding some book reviews I may start doing soon.

My friend and I then exchanged a series of emails, as usual sharing some stuffs linked with literature, creative writing and things of life. Among them, I came to know about a new word he taught me, since I have been talking about India in most of my sentences: SERENDIPITY.

At first, I didn’t make the approach between India and Serendipity. The first definition I obtained was from The Times of India edition dated 09th March 2013 stipulating the word serendipity as such: The faculty of making happy chance finds. Serendip, a former name of Ceylon. Horace Walpole coined the word (1754) from the title of the fairy-tale ‘The Three Princes of Serendip’ whose heroes ‘were always making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of’.

Then, the title about the Three Princes of Serendip attracted my attention and did some more researches about it. Here were the points that I retained regarding the story of the Three Princes of Serendip.

From Serendip to Serendipity

This morning, I obtained that definition about Serendip, which my friend gave me through researches he did on Wikipedia: The story has become known in the English-speaking world as the source of the word serendipity, coined by Horace Walpole because of his recollection of the part of the “silly fairy tale” in which the three princes by “accidents and sagacity” discern the nature of a lost camel.[3] In a separate line of descent, the story was used by Voltaire in his 1747 Zadig, and through this contributed to both the evolution of detective fiction and the self-understanding of scientific methodThrough that definition, I again saw the reference from departure with the story of the Three Princes of Serendip and the loss of their camel, which I may relate a bit later. Still within that framework about the transition from Serendip to Serendipity, here is the defitnion I found about Serendipity in Wikipedia: 

Serendipity is not just a matter of a random event, nor can it be taken simply as a synonym for “a happy accident” (Ferguson, 1999; Khan, 1999), “finding out things without being searching for them” (Austin, 2003), or “a pleasant surprise” (Tolson, 2004).

The New Oxford Dictionary of English defines serendipity as the occurrence and development of events by chance in a satisfactory or beneficial way, understanding the chance as any event that takes place in the absence of any obvious project (randomly or accidentally), which is not relevant to any present need, or in which the cause is unknown.

Innovations presented as examples of serendipity have an important characteristic: they were made by individuals able to “see bridges where others saw holes” and connect events creatively, based on the perception of a significant link.

The Three Princes of Serendip and the Lost Camel: A Lesson of Entrepreneurship

The Three Princes of Serendip is described in that Slideshare as three heroes who were always making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.” And effectively in the story, they are sent by their father, who sent them to live their life independantly but who taught his three sons about being endowed not only with great power, but also with all kinds of virtues of which princes are particularly in need. After they received so many years of good education, the three princes left their childhood kingdom and went their way together. While they were walking in the desert they noticed a lost camel, they reported the merchant who owned the camel about it. But instead of thanking the three princes, the merchant accused them of having stolen the camel and brought them to Emperor Beramo to have them punished. When the Emperor Beramo questioned the three princes about the certitude they showed by describing the camel, they answered that they had to use some clues regarding the camel characteristics to identity the camel and its merchant. Then, while they were being questioned, a traveler mentioned about the same lost camel wandering in the desert. Emperor Beramo then freeded the three princes and made of them his counsellors, thanks to their intelligence and high sense of observation. This is not the whole story but this is the most important extract of the whole story itself, on how identifying a lost camel through small clues, even though they never saw that camel before, helped about retrieving the owner of the lost camel, even though the three princes were accused for something they never did by that merchant, for finally ending as Emperor Beramo’s three best counsellors.

This extract of the story shows us through that example about the identification of the lost camel an illustrated definition of an entrepreneur as an initiator (with) willingness to take risks,  (who) embodies the leadership to bring together the capital and resources for the organization (and to) pursue their goals. (…) (Because) We can’t pick our parents nor our upbringing. We can, however, choose how hard we work, what skills we develop and how we can be our best self.

The Three Princes of Serendip and the Merchant

In a story entitled “The Three Princes of Serendip and the Merchant“, the three princes met a rich merchant who was on his way to build his castle on a river, with a lot of richnesses he has been accumulating thanks to his hard labor, but who was desperate because he lost everything. Then the three princes consoled him through those words: For if you seek the good in your misfortune you will find even greater fortune. We thank you for this lesson“. And effectively, a few years later, the desperate merchant’s dream came true and he became the happy owner of a marvellous palace located at the same place where he lost everything. When the three princes visited him, the merchant received them warmfully and related them about how he came to own that wonderful palace, and how the loss of his fortune in the river gave him more blessings in the future:

After you left me, I pondered on what you said. And in doing that I watched the river that had taken so much from me. I realized that why I had built my first palace there was that as a young boy I had spent much time at the river, playing in it’s waters, whispering my secret dreams to it, I had loved the river and I felt it had loved me.

For I felt, as a boy, that it had even spoken to me. I as a man had forgotten how the river had spoken to me as a boy, but I remained quiet and began listening to it again with my heart.

After a while it seem to speak to me again saying ‘This is not the place, lift your eyes and you will see.’

I looked up and saw the cliff and realized that up there I would have an even more wonderful view of the river than just by it’s banks. I am blessed I thought and sent my servants up there to prepare the ground to build even a humble home with what wealth I had left.

But as my servants were preparing the ground they came across a great field of gems of great wealth. I am blessed I thought when they brought the news to me.

For with the wealth that the river guided me to I was able to build a magnificent palace.

I invited all that I knew from all the kingdoms that I travelled through, to partake of my hospitality. And those weary trailers that I did not know I bid them to rest and refresh themselves.

Everyone came and each brought me treasures to fill my many rooms, but the greatest of treasures is their company and friendship for that is more precious that all the wealth in the kingdoms.

I have been blessed beyond measure, for my youthful zest has been returned to me, and I have found that my family, my friends and my good health are my greatest of treasures for through my misfortune has flowed the greatest good, and I discovered my Greatest Blessings.

By reading that lesson of life, we should interpret serendipity exactly like in the same way as a door slamming behind us and a window opening in front of us. This is exactly what the author of an article described as from her personal life experience in an article published on Midi – Morning GloryThe heroes were always making new discoveries by accident and sagacity – of things they were not even in quest of. Serendipity continues to work for me, hardly a day goes by without being guided to a special place. Or perhaps I am struck with a thought of doing something that had not occurred to me before. This often solved a problem that at that moment, to me, did not exist. I have learned to “go with it” I do not question it, and I have never been left with regret that I did follow this act of “Serendipity”.

Link between the Princes of Serendip and Voltaire’s Zadig

The definition given by my friend about Serendip mentions about Voltaire’s Zadig. As per my researches on Wikipedia, The book makes use of the Persian tale The Three Princes of Serendip. It is philosophical in nature, and presents human life as in the hands of a destiny beyond human control. It is a story of religious and metaphysical orthodoxy, both of which Voltaire challenges with his presentation of the moral revolution taking place in Zadig himself. A little further, Wikipedia gives more details about the links and differences between The Three Princes of Serendip and Zadig, which certifies Zadig, as per description given by my friend earlier, as a detective fiction: In chapter three of Voltaire‘s 1747 novel Zadig, there is an adaptation of The Three Princes of Serendip, this time involving, instead of a camel, a horse and a dog, which the eponymous Zadig is able to describe in great detail from his observations of the tracks on the ground. When he is accused of theft and taken before the judges, Zadig clears himself by recounting the mental process which allows him to describe the two animals he has never seen: “I saw on the sand the tracks of an animal, and I easily judged that they were those of a little dog. Long, shallow furrows imprinted on little rises in the sand between the tracks of the paws informed me that it was a bitch whose dugs were hanging down, and that therefore she had had puppies a few days before.”

Serendipity within Evolution of Detective Fiction

Another passage in that definition attracted my attention, when the definition given by my friend was linked with Zadig which contributed with the evolution of detective fiction. Unfortunately, my researches didn’t bring me any link between serendipity and detective fiction. However, I tried other researches regarding the beginnings of detective fictions, and here is an extract on which I paid attention and which gets closer, according to me, to the concept of Serendipity: 

The earliest known example of a detective story was The Three Apples, one of the tales narrated by Scheherazade in the One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights). In this story, a fisherman discovers a heavy, locked chest along the Tigris river and he sells it to the Abbasid CaliphHarun al-Rashid. When Harun breaks open the chest, he finds inside it, the dead body of a young woman who had been cut into pieces. Harun then orders his vizierJa’far ibn Yahya, to solve the crime and to find the murderer within three days, or be executed if he fails in his assignment.[3] Suspense is generated through multiple plot twists that occur as the story progresses.[4] This may thus be considered an archetype for detective fiction.[5]

The main difference between Ja’far (“The Three Apples”) and later fictional detectives, such as Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, is that Ja’far has no actual desire to solve the case. The whodunit mystery is solved when the murderer himself confesses his crime.[6] this in turn leads to another assignment in which Ja’far has to find the culprit who instigated the murder within three days or else be executed. Ja’far again fails to find the culprit before the deadline, but owing to his chance discovery of a key item, he eventually manages to solve the case through reasoning, in order to prevent his own execution.[7]

I especially put in bold the last sentence, since I mostly paid attention on the extract saying “owing his chance discovery of a key item”. Here, Ja’far uses exactly the same kind of logic as the Three Princes of Serendip, who succeeded into discovering the lost camel by noting down mentally some of his characteristics to help the camel owner to recognize it. And for this, he focusses on a key item which will help him to solve the problem and make him reasoning around that key item.

Serendipity and selt-understanding of scientific method

Here are some extracts that I found regarding Serendipitous discoveries:

Royston Roberts says that various discoveries required a degree of genius, but also some lucky element for that genius to act on.[14] Richard Gaughan writes that accidental discoveries result from the convergence of preparation, opportunity, and desire.[15]

An example of luck in science is when drugs under investigation become known for different, unexpected uses. This was the case for minoxidil (an antihypertensive vasodilatorthat was subsequently found to also slow hair loss and promote hair regrowth in some people) and for sildenafil (a medicine for pulmonary arterial hypertension, now familiar as “Viagra“, used to treat erectile dysfunction).

The hallucinogenic effects of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) were discovered by Albert Hofmann, who was originally working with the substance to try and treat migraines and bleeding after childbirth. Hofmann experienced mental distortions and suspected it may have been the effects of LSD. He decided to test this hypothesis on himself by taking what he thought was “an extremely small quantity”: 250 micrograms. Today, users typically take about 20–30 micrograms,[16] and Hofmann’s description of what he experienced as a result of taking so much LSD is regarded by Royston Roberts as “one of the most frightening accounts in recorded medical history”.[14]

(…)

The serendipitous can play an important role in the search for truth, but is often ignored in the scientific literature because of traditional scientific behavior and scientific thinking based on logic and predictability.

Successful researchers can observe scientific results with careful attention to analyzing a phenomenon under the most diverse and different perspectives. They can question themselves on assumptions that do not fit with empirical observations. Realizing that serendipitous events can generate important research ideas, these researchers recognize and appreciate the unexpected, encouraging their assistants to observe and discuss unexpected events.

Serendipity can be achieved in groups where a ‘critical mass’ of multidisciplinary scientists work together in an environment that fosters communication, establishing the idea that the work and the interest of a researcher can be shared with others who may find a new application for new knowledge.

Various thinkers discuss the role that luck can play in science. One aspect of Walpole’s original definition of serendipity, often missed in modern discussions of the word, is the need for an individual to be “sagacious” enough to link together apparently innocuous facts in order to come to a valuable conclusion. Indeed, the scientific method, and the scientists themselves, can be prepared in many other ways to harness luck and make discoveries.

I am not really keen when it comes on sciences and medicines, but I really enjoyed the extract I put in bold characters and especially the idea of discovering the unexpected by researchers, out of the researches they planned initially. I now understand better why my father secretly dreamt about becoming a researcher instead of a doctor and how research can bring a lot of good surprises to save humanity.

Serendipity and Sri Lanka

Apart the fact that Serendip was the Arabian and Persian name given to Sri Lanka in the 18th Century, some volunteers had the wonderful initiative to find out the serendipity spirit within modern Sri Lanka and to ask for the Sri Lankan government for their contribution into restoring the serendipity spirit within the country. Here is an extract of a wonderful speech published by the members of the Living Heritage Trust and addressed to the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka at the Tokyo Donors’ Conference of 2003 which sounds interesting: 

This new face of Sri Lankan tourism presents a dazzling array of possibilities. World Heritage sites, vibrant Buddhist culture, tropical wildlife, unspoiled beaches, traditional healing therapies, wind surfing, whale watching, diving, fashionable shopping and dining are just a few of the attractions that distinguish Sri Lanka as a destination for our visitors from Japan, both young and old. 

We have identified Eco-tourism, Adventure Tourism, Heritage Tourism, Agri-Tourism, Nature Tourism, and Sports Tourism for sustainable tourist development. In fact, we are now about to launch Sri Lanka’s first Sustainable Development Zone, featuring a blend of traditional hospitality and agriculture.

As any visitor can tell you, Sri Lanka contains several worlds. Besides our incredible bio-diversity, we are also blessed with a startling cultural diversity that includes Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, Muslim and indigenous populations. Like Japan, Sri Lanka is also a rice-growing culture with fish as a staple food. Our rural inhabitants are mostly rice cultivators and our coastal people are hereditary fisher folk.

‘Regaining Sri Lanka’ is also about recognizing, restoring and celebrating this cultural diversity. In legend and history, Lanka was always regarded as being somehow different and magical. That Lanka or Serendip still exists for every adventure-minded visitor, regardless of where he or she comes from. It is this magical isle that we now offer to the world, a land where every attraction is less than a day’s drive.

Another paragraph describes Sri Lanka as land of serendipity: The demise of serendipity is no better illustrated than in Sri Lanka, where so many travel-related advertisements and guidebooks use the extremely tenuous association between the island and serendipity with varying degrees of ineptitude. No surprise that the magazine of the travel trade is called Serendipity. One guidebook has the word serendipity splashed across the back cover without further explanation. Another states: “Sri Lanka; serendipity: the two have long been considered synonymous.” In similar vein, some advertisements speak fatuously of the country as the “land of serendipity.” Then there is the in-flight magazine with a name not far removed from serendipity, which harps on the connotations of “tranquility and enjoyment.”

Conclusion

This is an interesting initiative to restore the word Serendipity within the culture of Sri Lanka. It’s very sad, reading those extracts, on how the word Serendipity has lost its meaning through years, especially on the land where this word took birth, and which is Sri Lanka. This definition of the Serendipitous Haveli in Delhi is the perfect example on how this word’s meaning brings confusions in a lot of people’s minds and that no one really understood it.

I saw the plot of an american movie entitled “Serendipity” where two protagonists meet for the first time and retrieve themselves after all a series of unexpected incidents which happened to them. At the end of the page, I saw an extract on which I paid attention and which had a link with the movie:

  • Missed connection is a term that describes the kind of situation where two people want to reconnect after an initial meeting but neither has the other’s contact details.

Then I did some researches about serendipity and missed connections and found that interesting blog “Missed connections” where the author describes more about missed connections… Which could be open doors to Serendipity too…

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Author: ekasringavatar

Always be yourself unless you can be a Unicorn. Then, always be a Unicorn.

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