Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Power of Initiative

Seredipity is not passive. It isn't just a matter of fortuitous events happening to you but you taking advantage of random occurrences and turning them into fortuitous events. This requires initiative—taking control of whatever circumstance life presents to you.

"Initiative" is the power to "initiate" or start things. When you have initiative, you take control of the situation you are in rather than being victimized by it. You can practice initiative regardless of your circumstances. You don't dwell on the powers you don't have; instead you grasp the powers you do have and use them to the max.

Let's say you lose your job. Most people would call this a stroke of bad luck. If you have initiative, however, you're going to try your darndest to turn that bad luck into good luck. Some of the best career moves in history started with people losing their jobs. It was just the kick in the ass they needed to move in a different direction. In retrospect, losing the job may seem like serendipity—a random fortuitous event—but what it really was at the time was an active decision to take control of the situation and turn it into a fortuitous event.

The alternative is to bemoan what have lost and let yourself be defined by it. You may react to the unexpected event in the usual ways (collecting unemployment, looking for another job), but you don't try to take advantage of it. Maybe you descend into self-pity: "Why can't anything happy happen to me?" Maybe you take to drinking, which is a sure sign you've given up initiative. Maybe you even flirt with the idea of suicide. Serendipity hardly ever happens to people who take life this way.

Initiative is really interesting phenomenon. Almost anyone can catch a ball if it is thrown at them. That's "reaction". Initiation is when you are the first person to throw the ball, who gets the game started. Very few people are capable of that.

If you examine the daily life of the average person, you see very little initiative. They go to work because they have to, where they do the assignments that are handed to them. Then they come home and consume packaged entertainment. They dutifully fulfill the obligations they have already set themselves up for. They may have wishes and dreams, but they don't do anything about them. Life is stable and repetitive, and they like it that way.

When something comes along to disrupt the pattern, it's a disaster. If the TV breaks, it's a crisis. The usual response is to get the TV fixed or replaced, regardless of the cost. The serendipitous response is to say, "Hey, maybe this is a good thing! I've been meaning to quit television, and this is just the excuse I need." Okay, if you had strong initiative, you might have ditched the TV long ago, but it takes initiative just to recognize an opportunity and use it.

Initiative is the power to willingly change course, with or without a prompt from the outside world. The opposite is "inertia"—the tendency to continue moving in a straight line unless a powerful immovable force stops you. Most adults are specimens of inertia. You just can't expect much voluntary change out of them.

Oh, they'll talk about change! They'll tell you about the things they're going to do "someday". Initiative, however, is a phenomenon of the present. You see what needs to be done and you immediately do it—or at least you start the gears moving. As soon as you introduce a delay factor into the system, you give inertia the advantage. If you plan to quit smoking "tomorrow", it's probably never going to happen. If you change your behavior right now, as soon as it occurs to you, you have a much greater chance of success.

Initiative seems to arise from a certain part of the brain. If this part is damaged, people may retain the ability to respond to events but can't initiate them. It may also be true that some people are "gifted" with more initiative than others. That doesn't get you off the hook, though. Like any other muscle in the body, the initiative circuits are strengthened by repeated use. If you take control of your life in one area, it becomes easier to take control in other areas. The more you use the initiative circuits, the more robust and powerful they become.

As cliched as it sounds, much depends on "believing in yourself". If you believe you can quit smoking, then you will. If you don't believe, then you won't. Most of the power of initiative comes from the simple belief that "I can do this!" and then trying!

Of course, self-confidence isn't the whole key to success. A lot of damn fools declare "I can do this!" when the task is physically impossible. The point is, you have to initiate actions before you can complete them. You have to get off your ass and actually do something! The something you do could succeed or fail, but you have to actually try it before you can obtain that data.

Serendipity is the intersection of initiative and happenstance. Like it or not, unexpected events are going to happen to you. Most of them won't seem fortuitous at the time, but your job is to make them so. You will apply initiative to the things that happen to you. You will take control of them instead of letting yourself be a victim.

Serendipity isn't a matter of waiting for happy things to happen but turning what happens into happy things.

Oceanside, California

Next: "The Power of Preparation"

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Serendipity and How to Find It

Serendipity is a real word. It means "making unexpected fortuitous discoveries". Serendipity is when something unexpected happens to you that turns out even better that what you were planning.

Serendipitology is a made-up word. (I know, because I just made it up.) It is the study of serendipitous events. The word implies the rather absurd notion that you can plan on unplanned events. By definition, you can't expect the unexpected at a certain place and time, but you can expect that the unexpected will happen throughout your life, and you can be ready for it.

Let's say say you're planning a certain career—like doctor—and you're slowly working through the educational steps to get there. Then, while on a summer vacation, you happen to meet someone who is engaged in an entirely different career—a far more exciting one—and he gives you an opportunity to join him. That's serendipity: an unexpected fortuitous opportunity.

The really complicated serendipitology comes in when you have to decide between these two options: the seemingly safe and planned one and the apparently risky and unexpected one you only started to consider just now. It's not easy making this choice and it helps if you have a preexisting structure for it. The aim of serendipitology is to give you that structure, providing a philosophy for processing unexpected events of all kinds.

Serendipitology is essentially the science of real-world planning. It assumes that whatever plans you make, reality is going to step in from time to time and muck them up. If you're a non-serendipitologist, every time reality throws a monkey wrench into your plans it's a disaster. An experienced serendipitologist is more likely to step back and say, "Hey, maybe this isn't a disaster but an opportunity. Maybe this is better than what I was planning!"

Serendipitology helps you navigate the fine line between planning and passivity. Planning is good. In whatever game you are playing, it is wise to be looking ahead as many moves as possible, anticipating your future actions to reach an intended goal. Passivity is generally bad. If you take no active role in your own life, then you will always be a victim of outside forces. Planning breaks down, however, when you try to overdo it, trying to plot out too much without knowing what the world is going to do to derail your plans. Sometimes, you have to let unexpected events show you the way, perhaps with an occasional deliberate choice to flow with the winds and let things be.

There are two ways to screw up your life. One is to exert no force on it whatsoever. You passively follow the path of least resistance, which usually leads to little reward. The other way to screw up your life is to over-plan. You insist that you know exactly what the rest of your life is going to look like, commit yourself to that plan irrevocably and try to control every contingency leading to it. Both modes set you up for disaster, in the first case because you don't think ahead and in the second because you're not prepared for the unexpected events that will inevitably disrupt your plans.

Serendipitology is the philosophical equivalent of chaos theory in physics. Chaos is chaotic. In a chaotic system (such as, for example, any human system on Earth), there is no way to predict what any single particle will do. However, you may be able to predict the general behavior of the whole system. In physics, you have a pretty good idea of where chaos will happen and how it will evolve, even if you don't know the specifics. Likewise in serendipitology, you don't know exactly what the future will bring. You only know, with reasonable certainty, that something unexpected will come along to disrupt your well-laid plans.

What will happen in your life over the next ten years? There's no way to know for sure, but you can get a clue by looking back at the past ten years. Is the place you are right now the same place you expected to be ten years ago? Probably not. Although I don't know you personally, I would guess that some unexpected event or events disrupted your original plans. Perhaps you got a divorce or lost your job or something good happened that changed your course. In that case, it is reasonable to assume the same will happen in the next ten years. No matter how well you think you have things planned right now, unexpected events are bound to intervene.

Whether those unexpected disruptions are "disaster" or "serendipity" is up to you. You may have no control over an event itself, but you do have control over your response to it. Losing your job could be a catastrophe or a godsend; it depends on how you approach it. It also depends on how well you are prepared, practically and psychologically, for events like this, and that's where serendipitology comes in.

Unexpected events are beyond your control, but serendipity is a choice. It is up to you to find the silver lining in every cloud. People who seem to experience a large number of fortuitous events are not necessarily "lucky". They may just be better at recognizing unexpected opportunities and running with them. Instead of being charmed by fate, they may be skilled serendipitologists with a practiced ability to leverage fate to their advantage.

So what are these skills and how do you develop them? That is the purview of this blog.

How can we take the whims of fate and turn them to our advantage?

Laguna Niguel, California

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Previous References

According to Google, the sole preexisting reference to "serendipitology" used as a word appears in a 2007 computer science thesis by Martijn van Veelen in the Netherlands: Considerations on Modeling for Early Detection of Abnormalities in Locally Autonomous Distributed Systems.

In a footnote page 216, the word is defined....
    Serendipitology is the art of developing methodologies for revealing a priori undefined abnormalities. Serendipitology includes systematic approaches in pursuit of effective intuitive methods
Um, I guess that's an accurate definition, but the author didn't go anywhere with it. It's like the Vikings discovering America before Columbus. They don't get the credit because they didn't make a website!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

I Just Invented A New Word!

"Serendipitology" is a word I invented around 3am on Feb. 8, 2012 in a Motel 6 hotel room in Anchorage, Alaska. I immediately tweeted about it. Then I Googled it and found only a few minor references (screen grab). As of this date, Google shows only one user name and one minor journal reference. Otherwise, the term is virgin!

Within a couple of hours, I registered this domain ( to stake my claim to the word. Although I claim creator credit, I want the word to remain in the public domain, free and open to whoever wants to use it (for non-commercial purposes). I want the world to see what a valuable word it is!

Of course, the base word "serendipty" is not my own. That word is defined roughly as "making fortunate discoveries my accident". My own flash of inspiration is to think you can study the nature of such events, even if they are random in themselves. Serendipitology is akin to chaos theory except that it applies more to personal creativity than to physics.

Serendipitology turns out to be a very important concept! On this website, I hope to explore the term and all its implications. However, for now I only have time to record the birth of the word itself.

This is my word. I invented it. And over the next days, years and decades, I hope to explore
what it means.

Glenn Campbell
Anchorage, Alaska