This Is the Secret to Recognizing Serendipity—and How To Use It in Your Life

Photo: Stocksy/Lauren Lee
Serendipity—when something good or beneficial happens to you by chance—is often thought of as completely random and out of our control. The classic rom-com of the same name that stars John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale is full of moments like this: The meet cute fighting over the same pair of gloves at Bloomingdale's, Jon getting the book with Sara's phone number in it the night before his wedding day...Surely, it's all because of fate, right?

Someone who does believe providence plays a part is Neil Farber, MD—who just wrote a whole book about this phenomenon, aptly called, Serendipity ($16). Acts of serendipity are all around us and often go unnoticed, according to him. But there are key ways to recognize serendipity so these occurrences don't pass us by. Better still, there are ways to actually use serendipity leading to exciting relationship or career opportunities, Dr. Farber says. Makes you wonder what you could be missing out on, right? As (ahem) fate would have it, you found this article and are about to gain some very meaningful intel.

Dr. Farber's book is full of tools that can help recognize and use serendipity, four of which he explains below.

4 ways to recognize and use serendipity more

1. Pay close attention to your surroundings

One reason we so often miss serendipitous moments in our lives is because we're so embedded into a routine and laser-focused on what needs to get done, explains Dr. Farber. Have you ever driven or walked to work only to get there completely unable to think of anything you passed along the way? If you're not being present and taking in our surroundings, it's less likely that you'll recognize destiny in the details.

"A key to using serendipity more is first believing that it is happening all around you. Otherwise, you won't bother to look for it," Dr. Farber says. "You really have to hone your observational skills." But it's not enough to just pay more attention, Dr. Farber says it's also important to practice self-awareness and think about how what you notice actually can relate to your life.

For example, maybe you're toying with the idea of moving to a new apartment and on your walk to the grocery store—when you're fully present—you see a "for rent" sign. The first step was actually noticing the sign. The self-awareness step is thinking about how it could relate to your life.

2. Keep an open mind

Dr. Farber says suspending judgement is an important part of using serendipity to change your life because it requires expanding how you may be used to thinking. "Keeping an open mind [in relation to serendipity], is basically the idea of, 'hey, this could be something important,'" Dr. Farber says. "The whole difference between luck and serendipity is that luck just happens to you; you don't have to be involved in it. But with serendipity, you're involved in the process of turning it into something fruitful."

In his book, Dr. Farber gives an example of this in his own life. He was walking around the San Diego Air & Space Museum with a friend who remarked that he thought Dr. Farber should work there since he had an interested in air and space. Dr. Farber could have brushed it off as just a comment, but instead, he kept an open mind and started talking to people who did work at the museum about what it was like. Not too long after, he pursued a part-time position there himself.

3. Be curious

According to Dr. Farber, this means asking deeper questions: Why did this happen? How did this happen? The answers could be applied to a different situation in the future in a way you otherwise wouldn't have considered.

The invention of the microwave oven is one example of this. Engineer Percy Spencer was working for Raytheon, a manufacturing company, and he noticed that microwaves from an active radar set completely melted the chocolate bar in his pocket. He could have been annoyed, hit up the vending machine for another Hersey's and moved on. Instead, he got curious and started exploring why his chocolate bar melted. Eventually that led to him experimenting with using it to cook, which of course led to the development the cooking tool so many know and love.

4. Make connections

Paying attention to your surroundings, keeping an open mind, and getting curious are all important for recognizing serendipity, but Dr. Farber says without this last step, it'll remain something cool that happened and that's about it. If you want to actually use serendipity to better your life,  you have to think about how it can fit into different scenarios.

This often requires filing information away and then remembering it later. For example, maybe you were taking an afternoon walk and you noticed a local cafe was hiring. Then, a week later, you were having a phone date with a friend and she mentioned her niece needed a part-time job. It's serendipitous that you walked by—and noticed—a place that was hiring and also that your friend's niece happened to need a job. But it took the connection of thinking back to that "now hiring" sign to put it into action.

What Dr. Farber most wants people to realize is that serendipity isn't luck; they're totally different. Winning the lottery is luck. But actively paying attention to what fate puts in your path and asking deeper questions about how it can be used is serendipity. And you know what, both are pretty darn exciting.

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