Long ago and far away in a land called Persia, there were three princes who spent their days traveling the world. As they roamed far and wide, thither and yon, across amethyst mountains, emerald valleys, and sapphire seas, the princes “were always making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of: for instance, one of them discovered that a mule blind of the right eye had travelled the same road lately, because the grass was eaten only on the left side, where it was worse than on the right.” Another one, after a long day of travel that left him aching and sore, lay down to rest upon a bed of soft, wooly leaves of arnica, only to discover that the plant had a marvelous capacity to relieve sore muscles. And the third prince, having recently attended the grape harvest in the hills of Tuscany, sought out a goldsmith in Germany to help him repair his family ring. The goldsmith was building a printing press at the time, which reminded the prince of the wine press he’d observed in Tuscany. He told Gutenberg about what he’d seen, and thus movable type was born.
The Persian fairy tale of The Three Princes of Serendip found its way into the English language via Horace Walpole (1717-97), who, distinguished by birth as the fourth Earl of Oxford and son of Prime Minister Robert Walpole, became famous for his best-selling Gothic novel The Castle of Otranto (London 1765). Walpole recounted the tale in a 1754 letter to his friend Horace Mann to illustrate the concept of serendipity—”a very expressive word” he coined to describe “the most remarkable instances of this accidental sagacity (for you must observe that no discovery of a thing you are looking for comes under this description).”
Serendipity is the term we still use today to describe those happy accidents of creative insight: the phenomenon of “making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of.” And the term is making a comeback. Steven Johnson dedicates a chapter to the concept in his dazzling book Where Good Ideas Come From (2010). On January 2, just in time for new year’s resolutions, Pagan Kennedy published an essay the New York Times Review on cultivating “The Art of Serendipity” (2016). I read Kennedy’s essay first, before serendipitously encountering the concept again in Johnson’s book, which I’m halfway through. A Google search led me to Richard Boyles’ detailed account of the term’s origins in Walpole’s writings (2000).
I’ve embellished Walpole’s story with fictional examples of arnica and Gutenberg because I want to emphasize that serendipity is not merely good luck; it’s not just ideas dropping into your head “out of the blue.” Rather, discoveries come “by accident and sagacity”—by a combination of chance and intelligence. Serendipity, Kennedy writes, is not something that just happens, it’s “something people do.” It’s also something people do together, when minds and imaginations meet in print or in person. Like the Princes of Serendip, we can cultivate serendipity by being sharply observant of the world, following threads, and making connections between ideas, phenomenon, and people. It’s no accident that there are three Princes of Serendip traveling the world, not one lone, tortured genius holed up in an attic.
We don’t have to travel far to cultivate serendipity, Steven Johnson explains: “Reading remains an unsurpassed vehicle for the transmission of interesting new ideas and perspectives” (112). Far from seeing the digital age as a dark age for serendipity, Johnson says the the world wide web has moved a “fringe experience” to the “mainstream of our culture.”
I traveled along an archipelago of serendipity this morning, beginning with the New York Times daily briefing, which offers “what you need to know” to get through the day. Today’s briefing led me to stumble upon some word-image stories from the archive produced for Black History Month, which led me to this educational initiative, “What’s Going On In This Picture?” We often think we’re wasting time surfing the web, but maybe it’s better to think of it as diving into an ocean of ideas, stories, images, videos, games, tools, platforms, and resources, guided by passion and instinct, and rewarded by serendipity.