Cultivating Serendipity

June 27, 2011

Goodbye to a River is a book about John Graves's three-week canoe trip down the Brazos River, just prior to when the river was scheduled to be dammed up. In the course of his trip, Graves makes a navigational blunder that puts him and his dog and his craft in peril. After a stroke of good fortune delivers him from his blunder, Graves self-deprecatingly reflects that, "Because my stupidity didn’t deserve luck, I had it." In my fifth year of graduate school I read Graves’ book for the first time, and that line has more or less been my philosophy of life ever since. Maybe "philosophy" is the wrong word. I guess it’s more become my motto. I blunder plenty often, but I’ve had more than my fair share of good luck as well. For some time now, though, I’ve been mulling over the idea that serendipity, no mere product of chance, can be cultivated and courted, blunders aside.

I think that people at all stages of an academic career can set themselves up for good things. Unlike some of the things we do, though, like publishing articles, some of the best things in and for an academic career come from unexpected places, and I am concerned here with how we can invite such unanticipated good fortune into our lives. You can, I think, manufacture good luck. I’m talking about actual, tangible, concrete actions that aspiring and rising academics can undertake in order to cultivate good luck, to cultivate serendipity, that wonderful feeling that zings up your elbow when, in a sequence of events too perfect to script, the strange, frayed threads of one’s life weave together in a happy way.

I've begun to think of serendipity as a houseplant, one of those really tough houseplants that you can forget about for a while without it dying, not some orchid with a complicated schedule for misting and fertilizing. You probably know a professor with the type of plant I’m thinking about in his or her office. It sits in a window, largely ignored and neglected, but always there, always alive. Every now and then, after some attention, the plant flourishes. I think that the best way I’ve been able to cultivate serendipity, to make my luck flourish, has been to put my ideas into the public world.

I began writing for an invisible audience when I accepted my first tenure-track appointment and began my own blog. I commented on conferences and professionalization issues, and used the site to manage content for the courses I taught. I still keep up the site. More than any other single action I've undertaken (well, outside of finishing my degree), pitching my ideas into the wider world, terrifying as it can be, has been the best thing I’ve ever done for my career. In the 15 months since I began my own personal website, at least a dozen different opportunities have come my way, unanticipated, because my ideas had been written into the public ether of the internet. Finding audiences for our ideas, especially our awkward, underdeveloped, maybe-bunk-but-maybe-profound ideas, is the surest way I know of to make good things happen. It can be scary, but as long as one exhibits some sense about it, the risks don’t have to be big.

Reaching out in general produces felicitous results, in my experience. When I was in the very early stages of conceptualizing my dissertation project I ordered a recently released book that seemed relevant to my ideas. The book arrived, and as I began to read I realized that my original dissertation idea was no longer viable. The book did everything I had wanted to do in my dissertation, and had done it better than I ever could have. I read the book in one evening. After the frustration of feeling like I had been "scooped" passed, I realized and admitted to myself how profoundly good and smart the book was. On a lark and out of my admiration, that very evening, around 10:30 pm, I e-mailed the author to compliment him on his monograph. Within an hour, the author responded. We struck up a conversation.

Our professional relationship continued to grow, and two years later he served on my dissertation committee. The author whose text I so admired has ended up being an important professional resource and mentor for me. The relationship would never have begun without my decision to e-mail an unknown person thousands of miles away. Of course, things don’t always play out so neatly, and I was lucky to cross paths with such a collegial individual. My point though is that often when we take mild risks, like e-mailing a stranger, good things can happen. What was the worst that could have happened? The author could have ignored my message, or sent a rude or arrogant reply? That's a pretty low risk.

As the celebrated gambler Amarillo Slim writes in his autobiography, Amarillo Slim in a World of Fat People, "If you’re going to make a living putting the odds in your favor, you damn well better know how to calculate them." I quote a gambler because I think there’s a lot more gambling within an academic career than most people realize. And while it isn’t the stuff of memoir, a happy and successful academic career arises not only from hard work, but also from taking smart risks, and fully understanding the liabilities and potential payoffs of the gambles we make every day.

Which journal to submit an article to, which colleagues to affiliate with, which job to take, what to say publicly and what to hold private, all of these are gambles of varying magnitude. Luckily, taken individually most of them are low stakes. Regardless of your field of study, there may be entire series of low-risk/high-reward actions that you can take, any one of which might produce unexpected winnings for you and your career. Unlike a poker game, you often won’t be able to predict which of your career bets will pay off with the precision that Amarillo Slim can calculate his chances of drawing to an unconnected straight, but you can develop a sense for it. But before luck can find you, you have to place your bets.

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