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Being open to proactive serendipity can alter your future

When facing an unexpected choice, which path should you take?
When facing an unexpected choice, which path should you take?

Don’t think too much when you answer this question:

As you review your career, what’s an example of an unexpected encounter or piece of information that took you in a direction you had not anticipated?

Feel free to send me examples. I’d love to learn about them.

If you have one, or many, of those examples, you could be a victim of serendipity.

A few years ago, I sat next to a person at a fundraiser. We chatted, and then he realized that someone had mentioned me as a person who might help him in a small way with a project he was doing.

That unexpected encounter has led to a terrific relationship. I helped him with his project at several stages. He has given me new ways to think about risks I should take and encouraged me to take them. I often think about how lucky we were to sit next to each other. Serendipity in action.

But in fact, it is not enough just to have an unexpected encounter or to have a piece of information appear. For serendipity to happen in a positive way, we have to notice and decide whether to pursue that unexpected event.

I could have kept the conversation with my friend at a superficial level or said, “Oh no, I’m not the best person to help you with that project, but thanks for thinking of me.” We would have enjoyed a nice meal and said goodbye.

But each of us made the effort to notice that this encounter might be valuable, and then we pursued it. At each stage, we could have finished and moved on, but we have continued to get together, push and learn from one another.

So what does it take for serendipity to happen?

I suspect there are a few key elements: We need to be open to and curious about experiences, information and encounters. If I assume that my world is enough, that I know the people I want to, or that I really don’t need to do things differently, then I may be less willing to notice something unexpected.

But if I’m curious, open, alert and confident, then I’m more likely to recognize and then consider something unexpected. Then, if I evaluate that something, I could decide that “yes, this is something worth pursuing,” or “no, not now or not ever.” The key is that I was proactive about noticing and evaluating.

Now I wonder if this is something that organizations could build into their culture. More on that later.

In the meantime, try to notice unexpected events, people, and information and see if you can take advantage of “proactive serendipity.”