I learned a new word today

I've never used the word 'serendipity' before. Maybe because nobody ever uses it in Dutch (I had to look it up, it's 'serendipiteit'). Maybe I've been thought that good outcomes are the result of a strong work ethos. That leaving something 'up to chance' is a sign of ill preparation or lack of thoroughness. Or maybe everyone it's all around me and I just never noticed it. But what is serendipity exactly?

"Serendipity is the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for"

So does this mean that serendipity is the same as luck? Close, but not entirely. They bear similarities because they both describe unexpected outcomes or events. Serendipity, however, has a much narrower use; it puts focus on the pleasure of finding things you were not looking for (finding a random banknote on the streets) whereas luck can also be used to describe unexpected outcomes to known situations (finding back your lost wallet).

Does serendipity differ from fate then? Here, the differences between the two are a bit more clear. Fate differs because it assumes everything in our lives—good and bad—happens as it's destined to happen, a pretty big concept. Serendipity doesn't concern itself an event being preordained or not, as long as it gives a positive result.

Why this matters? I'm not a big believer in fate, nor religiously inclined. Still, I'm starting to come to terms with that serendipity might be the invisible force behind most of my major life decisions. Looking back at the last 8 years or so, I found some highlights that were caused by serendipitous events:

  • Back when I was 18 I was looking for a biology study at an open day at the University of The Hague. I discovered design was a job when I accidentally walked into the wrong classroom, where they discussed communication design. I tagged along and now I design professionally for a living over the last four years.
  • While travelling back from my internship in Berlin, I was craving some Dutch fastfood at a train station. Being overly excited about this for no reason, I started blabbing at a stranger waiting in line. We both happened to take the same train and decided to travel together. We've been together for 7 years on this exact day.
  • After a somewhat difficult period where I lived paycheck to paycheck as a freelancer, I got the opportunity to take an interview as a graduate intern at WeTransfer. Turns out that the person in charge of hiring knew some of my past clients from my freelancing days. Those people recommended me for my past work and I got hired.
  • Back in 2019, I met up with a fellow to give feedback on this new email app (Tempo) he was developing. We were sitting in a small cafe in the middle of Amsterdam. A year later, when I was sitting in that exact same cafe with a good friend of mine, she found out that a design position opened up at Tempo. Now I work there.

Looking back at these events, I realize that working hard doesn't automatically make you successful. Sometimes you're in luck, plain and simple. Or you just happen to know the right people. No matter how much effort you put in, you often still need the right opportunity to put it into practice.

This doesn't mean you need to submit yourself to a roll of the dice either, as there are usually many things that fall within your sphere of influence to increase your odds. If you're looking for a job, you can still vet out the potential candidates, spice up your resume/portfolio, or prepare thoroughly for an interview. It doesn't mean you'll get the job, but a disciplined and structured approach should up the chance of getting one.

Still, I realize there will always be forces at play outside your sphere of influence, and they help determine the outcome. Accepting that serendipity exists is my key learning here.

Accepting serendipity also helped me put things into perspective. Treat others like you'd like to be treated and they might do the same for you. Don't beat yourself up hard over failure, even the hardest work can fail if the timing is off. And finally, to enjoy life one day at a time; you might just find something you weren't looking for.

Published on 11-02-2021