Great Expectations


I became a speechwriter for IBM instead of a college professor . . . while my friend Chet was laid off by IBM and became a college professor.

My second cousin, Dean, was working at a gym . . . where a chance conversation with a celebrity news anchor led to a career as a network TV producer.

At the age when most retire, the architect of my house found himself a hotelier . . . a new reason to keep building buildings.

Is it serendipity? Or our own openness to discern and exploit unexpected opportunity?

The ancients believed that three women controlled all human destiny. They called them The Fates—interpreted in the painting above by artist Aloria Weaver. They were more traditionally depicted in art and sculpture as weavers of a tapestry that dictated the destinies of us mortals.

My friend, Impressionist painter Ilona Smithkin, is in her ninety-fourth year. “I never expect anything,” she’ll tell you, “so I’m never disappointed.”

St. Paul, too, advised against great expectations: “I have learned to be content in whatever state I am.”

Yes, but. It’s also true that if beginning monks are going to abandon the monastic life, they usually do it during the few years following their solemn profession of vows. Why? They fall into the trap of thinking there are no new heights to achieve—no more great expectations.

When unanticipated events result in happy outcomes, we call it serendipity.

Perhaps the best known example of serendipity is Alexander Fleming, who was working at a hospital in 1928 when he noticed that a culture of staphylococcus aureus had become contaminated with mould—and the mould was destroying the bacteria. This chance observation led to the development of penicillin and other antibiotics. X-rays, radiation and pulsars, Velcro, Vaseline and Teflon--all owe their existence to serendipity. 

Can we make serendipity happen? Can we give life to our great expectations?

Dr Stephann Makri of the University College London Interaction Centre says: “By looking for patterns in peoples’ memorable examples of serendipity, we’ve found that it is more than just a ‘happy accident'. It also involves insight—an ‘aha’ moment of realisation.”

In a paper titled, “Maximising Serendipity,” James Lawley and Penny Tompkins describe six components that need to be in place for serendipity to occur:

  • A prepared mind
  • An unplanned and unexpected event
  • A recognition of the potential for positive significance
  • Action taken to amplify the potential for positive effect
  • Effects of the action—which are utilized to further amplify the benefit
  • Value of the original event and the subsequent effects becomes apparent—at which time serendipity can be said to have taken place

Recognition and action. In other words, expect the unexpected, then jump on it with both feet.

Stand-up comic Steven Wright acknowledges: “You can't have everything. Where would you put it?” But you might get a bigger slice of life's pie--if you’re awake at the wheel.

In my next blog, “Anniversaries”


Read my newest book, Fat Guy in a Fat Boat, in print or Kindle from Amazon:

Also available is my e-book, A Light from Within, about the small moments of our lives that seem commonplace until they are examined under a creative lens.

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  • Bob Duca
    commented 2015-11-15 07:53:32 -0500
    They’re all good…but this one is exceptional! Nice job, Peter.