Thoughts on serendipity
Years ago, at the age of 28, I drove 18 hours to a ceramics workshop. The teacher was Paul Soldner, an icon in the field of art ceramics. He is the man to whom many refer as the father of American raku, a firing technique now used by many potters. Even at the age of 83, he had not lost his sharp mind, his critical views, and his strong confidence that once we know the rules, we can break them to discover something new. This lesson meant a lot to me; it showed me that the journey does not end by mastering whatever one sets oneself to learn. It taught me that what follows is an extraordinary life of exploring different ideas and taking diverse paths.
This thought may be a bit frightening for a young person, but not for me. I looked forward with great confidence and optimism to all the serendipities my life would bring. Serendipity was a word I learned there. As I understood the word from the context, the definition in my head differs somewhat from the one I later found in dictionaries. For me, it meant: If you work hard, if you experiment, if you continue to try something new, great things will eventually happen. Just do not forget to watch out for small, possibly tiny signs that a breakthrough is happening.
The Cambridge Dictionary defines this word as the fact of finding interesting or valuable things by chance.
Merriam-Webster gives this definition: the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for; also, an instance of this.
The Merriam-Webster Thesaurus states it is the unexpected occurrence of or faculty for finding valuable or agreeable things that are not sought.
The history of this word is also quite charming. It comes from a Persian fairy tale, The Three Princes of Serendip. Serendip is an old Persian name for Sri Lanka. The King of Serendip commands his sons to take a journey abroad, as recommended by their teacher as a way of completing their education. Even though they set off with a concrete goal, the sons often make discoveries by accident, of things they were not pursuing.
The word was first coined in 1754, by Horace Walpole, an English art historian. He wrote a letter to his friend, in which he explained an unexpected discovery he had made, referencing the fairy tale.
A great example of serendipity was the discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming in 1928. Another was the invention of the microwave oven by Percy Spencer in 1945. Both of these discoveries were made while different goals were pursued, by scientists who paid attention to everything going on around them.
If you start grasping the meaning of the word now, you may also come to the same conclusion as I did. This word does not only apply to groundbreaking discoveries; it also applies to small things in life.
We seem to pay so much attention to our goal. Sometimes, like a horse with blinkers on, we miss many small signs and indicators that would guide us to a different path, or show us new possibilities.
I feel the language we use often changes the way we think of and experience events. My previous way of looking at any work, experiment or development as either successful or failed has rapidly changed. Knowing the word has made me look closely not only at my work but also at situations in my life. As a result, I often find new potential.
I tend to look much more closely at results that, at first glance, appear disastrous or unsatisfactory. In my workshops, I have seen students approaching a new glaze test in one way only. Does it look as I expected it to? If something different happens, they quickly discard the test tile the glaze is on. I try to teach and show potential. I try to make them look at the characteristics of the glaze separately. I make them look at its surface, its crystallization, and how it breaks on decoration. Colour, which most of them are looking at, is usually the easiest thing to change. At times like these, I wish we all grew up with the word “serendipity”, having learned it at a very early age. Then we would be more open to the notion that even in an unsuccessful trial, there is something to discover. There is something new to learn. There is something new to understand.
I feel that awareness of serendipity’s inevitability in any creative process is quite motivating. Sometimes, I wonder how many serendipities I missed before I learned this word.
Driving the 18 hours back home from the workshop with Mr Soldner, I was already very sure of one thing: intentionally, I had been searching for technical knowledge; unintentionally, I had received a valuable lesson in living.
Since meeting Paul Soldner, I have witnessed serendipity many times. The word that was so strange and new in 2003 gives me great comfort in 2019.
Audiopedia (2016, What is SERENDIPITY? What does SERENDIPITY mean? SERENDIPITY meaning, definition and explanation, http://www.theaudiopedia.com, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HX0bRIBSq4w
Cambridge Dictionary, Serendipity, https://dictionary.cambridge.org/
Crampton, Linda (2019), Serendipity: The Role of Chance in Making Scientific Discoveries, https://owlcation.com/stem/Serendipity-The-Role-of-Chance-in-Making-Scientific-Discoveries
Hodges, Elizabeth Jamison (1964), The Three Princes of Serendip
Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Serendipity, https://www.merriam-webster.com/
Merriam-Webster Thesaurus, Serendipity, https://www.merriam-webster.com/
Soldner, Paul (2004), movie Playing with Fire