Managed Serendipity

Don’t you hate it, you think you have a brilliant original thought and that darn Google shows you that numerous people have thought it before you!  Such is the case of one of my Phrankisms, ‘Managed Serendipity‘.  In this case, it is okay because through fortunate happenstance I can potentially work on a better definition.

Definition of Managed Serendipity

The ability to respond to and take advantage of an opportunity in the future.  The catch is that you don’t know what attributes will be called on by that opportunity or even if such a chance will occur in the future.  

As the name implies, there are two parts to the concept. Managed is what you can actively do to either generate opportunities or capitalize on them as they appear.  Serendipity is entirely beyond your control, it is fate, fortune, chance or God’s will.  You can only react to serendipity not control it.  This is not a new concept by any stretch.  Here are three examples:

  • In the fields of observation chance favors the prepared mind. (translated from Louis Pasteur from: Dans les champs de l’observation le hasard ne favorise que les esprits préparés); source: Wikiquote.
  • Optionality is the ability to switch from one course of action to another thus taking advantage of uncertainty and changing circumstances (adapted from ‘Antifragile
    Things That Gain From Disorder’, Nicholas Taleb).
  • Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.  Attributed to John Lennon but based on a Readers Digest quote from 1957 (courtesy Quote Investigator).

Examples of Managed Serendipity

The best way to foster Managed Serendipity is education.  Graduating from High School, College or an apprenticeship gives you more options then dropping out in Grade 10.  Beyond formal education, life choices and personal investments are part of Managed Serendipity.  This includes having at your disposal a wide variety of skills and experiences that initially seem only relevant in one narrow circumstance.

By way of an example, I did the lay up and editing for the 7th edition of the Waskahegan Trail Guide.  That experience gave me a much better appreciation for desktop publishing, layout and production of complex documents – skills that have tipped job interviews in my favour or allowed me to do more complex volunteer activities – such as blogging on Managed Serendipity (yeah)!

Limitations to Managed Serendipity

To start, one’s own health.  Being free of self-inflicted health limitations (e.g. excessive weight, poor physical conditioning, mental well-being, etc.) better positions you to seize an opportunity.  Certainly family circumstances can impact Managed Serendipity.  For example, caring for your young children limits your work opportunities – but also provides you with infinite joy and a core reason for your existence, a very fair trade off.  At the same time, being the primary care giver for an aged parent or spouse, shrinks your world (but such are the burdens borne with love).

Notwithstanding family restrictions, people fail to recognize an opportunity when it presents itself.  To this, I have three maxims I use in my life so as to recognize Managed Serendipity:

  1. Always answer the door when opportunity knocks.
  2. Remember opportunity typically knocks when you are in the bathtub.
  3. Never negotiate on the other party’s behalf.
  4. Manage to the downside.

Answer When Opportunity knocks

Opportunity is constantly knocking.  It may be something as obvious as a head hunter or less straightforward as your daughter’s soccer coach asking if you can edit a newsletter – and therefore learn new software.  At least hear what opportunity has to sell before closing the door and …

Opportunity Knocks When You are in the Bath

Opportunity seldom knocks when it is convenient for you.  Sometimes Managed Serendipity means leaving a good paying government job on Friday and boarding a plan on Sunday to fly to and work in Munich German for 18 months (hey it happens, trust me).  After hearing opportunity out, remember that timing is never convenient or circumstances are easy.  Of course you need to balance this against other personal circumstances (young children, aged parents, etc.).

Never negotiate on the other party’s behalf.

The final consideration with Managed Serendipity is that you can typically negotiate.  It is amazing how often there are circumstances in which a person will discount or not propose an option in negotiations because they think the other party will reject it.  For example, you approach your employer and say, ‘hey, can I take a leave of absence and go work in Vienna for year?‘  Your problem ends in asking the question and starts upon hearing the response.  Their problem starts on hearing the question and ends formulating the response.  Don’t confuse your problems (asking) with their problems (responding).

You may have young children and a chance to work abroad appears.  DON’T forego this opportunity because traveling with a six year old is hard.  DO eliminate the opportunity if travelling with your precious child is unduly dangerous.

Life, Gravy Lumps and All

When presented with a situation, can you accept the worst case scenario?  Finding a new job, accepting rejection or perhaps receiving no answer?  If the answer is yes then you have manages to the downside. If you can live with worst case scenario then everything else is gravy. Sometimes the gravy is lumpy, perhaps separating … but heck, it is still GRAVY!

Ying, Yang and the Border

Managed Serendipity is like the Asian concept of Ying and Yang.  They are complementary, distinct and inter-related.  To me the most interesting thing about Ying and Yang is not the two tadpole’esque features – it is border or interface between them.  As in any border, there is danger between safety/adventure or risk/opportunity.  I wish I could say that seizing an opportunity is without risk but that is not the case.  An aging parent’s health may deteriorate with out your care, your young child may feel displaced between cultures and you may not have a job waiting for you upon your return – risks.  Of course you may also feel refreshed and a better care giver upon your return, your child is stronger working through cultural displacement and you landed an even better job – opportunities.

Ying-Yang courtesy of Wikipedia (used via creative commons).

As Stephen Covey talks about in ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People; Powerful Lessons in Personal Change’: Nobody ever laid on their death-bed and wished they had spent more time at the office.  In parallel, no one ever laid peacefully in the death-bed content they stayed in the bath tub despite incessant knocking.