Strategic Serendipity

Stephen Calhoun, artist

Loosening, to Zero Assumptions (2015)

My art has as one of its methodological and informing concerns the actuality of openness to: serendipity, underdetermination, and, the virtuous circle formed by the viewer’s consummation–given their own open subjectivity–of an enjoined creative agency. My serendipitous art aims to evoke the viewer’s serendipitous exploratory agency.


You’re here — it’s a serendipity — what shall we do together?

Notes on serendipity from the integration of adult learning theory, human cybernetics, experimental philosophy anthropology, and social psychology. Between 2005-2013, I approached the study of serendipity and pseudo-serendipity from an analytic-constructivist and social systems perspective. Nowadays, I approach it as a working artist.

Previous blog posts on Transformative Anthropology and Strategic Serendipity stack up here.

evolution of terminology

[2006] transformative anthropology (misnomer; refers to genesis of concept)

[2007] strategic serendipity

[2007] serendipity and chance development

[2007] serendipity in the adult development cycle

[2008] constructive luck

[2008] constructive fortuity

[2012] strategic serendipity


(2016) See Pagan Kennedy, How to Cultivate the Art of Serendipity, New York Times

note a.

This page captures notes for my research project on the role of happenstance in individual human development. What I term today, 2012, STRATEGIC SERENDIPITY. Although these notes achieve a linear order here, presented as they are in the order they come to me, this is not the same order each will achieve in a future, formalized, presentation as paper, video presentation, book.

I. (2006) Transformative Anthropology – example & brief definition

At times individuals experience events which change their lives. Such events broadly fall into one of two kinds: certain, or, chance. For the former kind of event, it is instantiated as a matter of certainty. For the latter kind of event, it is instantiated as a matter of chance.

Transformative Anthropology’s central concern is the nature and implications of chance events that change people’s lives. Such an event is the fundamental structural element of Transformative Anthropology.

The following example was offered in response to a question posed to participants in a workshop in 2006.

“I met the man who became my husband totally by chance. I was dining with three girlfriends. Seated at the table next to us was a couple and a man. My seat faced away from their table, but its back faced the back of the man’s seat. I heard a ping, and turned toward the sound to see that a dessert fork had fallen to the floor next to my seat. I picked it up, knowing it came from the table behind me.

The man turned toward me. Our eyes met. He smiled. I handed him the fork. He made some small talk about his delicious dessert.

“I bet it’s good.” I said. With that he asked me if I’d like a bite.

When his party broke up so his friends could go to a movie, I asked him if he’d like to join us. He did and he turned up the charm. At the end of the evening, he gently grabbed my elbow and whispered that he’d like to call me.

We dated for six months, became engaged, and married a year later.”

I asked her:

“Was the restaurant you and your friends regular hang out?”

She answered:

“If you want to know whether it was inevitable that we ended up there, it wasn’t because we rotated picking a restaurant for our girl’s nights, and my friend who picked the restaurant on this night, was the one who always wanted to try a new place. It was the first time I had ever been in this restaurant.”

Later, this example will be used to further explore the concept of a chance strategic contingency.

II. Question of Terminology

In my not stop quest to research one of the most common factors in a person’s life-cycle development, serendipity, I initiated the project by coining the term Transformative Anthropology. It’s intended to arch over the project. I’m sticking with it too, but it misses the mark as a coinage. Still, it hits the mark in the personal sense because my modest discovery was the result of debriefing and analyzing informal ethnographic documentation. And, it was yours truly who had his attitude transformed a bit.

But, I am bugged over a separate issue of terminology. When I wander around the various ways people refer to life-altering serendipity, I’m not satisfied with the various common terms; such as: serendipity, happenstance, luck, dumb luck. lucky break, blessing. There are two reasons. First, each has slightly different connotations without any single term having a wholly satisfying connotation. Second, the term that would fit the bill would be precise to the point of its partly explaining the novel conception I’m galvanized by.

The context for my dissatisfaction is important to this quandary. Incredibly, conceptions of “life altering serendipity” have not been—as far as I know—deeply defined, let alone researched, in any field. This is especially surprising with respect to developmental and personality psychology. This is also true for anthropology.

As for philosophy, the situation is different because while, for example, contingency is problematicized, at the same time, this focal point does not refer to everyday happenstance facets of human development. It is the same for treatments of related subject matter, such as constitutive luck.

Shortly after I began looking for brilliant ideation about the common enough fact of life, its randomness with respect to human development, I came across the work of Nicholas Rescher. He’s a very well known philosopher in scholarly philosophy, even was once President of the American Philosophical Association. He published an article, “Luck and the Enigmas of Fate,” in the journal Philosophical Exchange, in 1993. Although I haven’t been able to obtain a copy of the article, I found it listed in his bibliography under the heading, Philosophical Anthropology. I thought then I was about to learn just how unoriginal my insight was.

Then in 1995, his book, Luck: The Brilliant Randomness Of Everyday Life was published. I noted this at thought, ‘There you go. This has been sorted out.’ (Incidentally, Rescher is one of the most important philosophers alive—as it turns out.) I read it eagerly. Rescher, in this book for the lay person, employs classic pragmatism, phenomenology, and, epistemic logic, to sort out through and then delineate the nature of luck, and its crucial subsets, good fortune and bad fortune.

Incredibly, the aspect that has my full attention, serendipity in human development (etc.!) is basically passed over in his book, due to its being taken for granted as an essential ingredient of human life. In touching this subject lightly and in this way, Rescher—for me—points toward one of the intriguing elements of how this is problematicized in my own phenomenological research: serendipity, being pervasive, is also taken as a given.

But, I don’t like the prosaic terms. Anyway, I’ve sketched out the context for my own search about conceptions of everyday serendipity in various fields.

Then, I came across a paper, Three Principles of Serendip: Insight, Chance, and Discovery in Qualitative Research (Gary Fine & James Deegan,) and at found a web site at Bryn Mawr College, called Serendip. Once again, I assumed the originalityof my own thinking was to be deposed. This would be fine too. I’m really looking to take a dip in well-travelled waters. …when I find the body of water.

It wasn’t to be at Serendip. Although, it is a fascinating web site about accidental discovery.

This noted, the paper by Fine and Deegan evoked the solution to the problem of terminology.

For Merton (1968, p.157) three features characterize datum that fit into a serendipity pattern: it must be “unanticpated,” “anomalous,” and “strategic” (i.e. with implications for the development of theory.)

I rolled the three terms around in my mind.

Unanticipated, yes!

Anomalous. no!

Strategic. yes—for ‘strategic’ describes the ramification of the serendipitous event with respect to human development.

Unanticipated, strategic, events> are equivalent to serendipity, given the direction of my conceptual aims. I felt the problem of terminology was almost resolved. What Fine and Deegan helped me to see was the notion of ‘the strategic.’

As for ‘unanticipated,’ this would be covered in employing the word, chance. Contingency would be substituted for ‘event.’

Giving the following informal equivalences, and, giving the resolution.

Serendipity, (in the context of life-changing events)

= unanticipated, strategic, event

= chance, strategic, contingency.

(or, foreshortened to the acronym CSC)

Although the alternate string-cum-terms, accidental (or random) strategic event, carry close to the same sense as CSC, in a follow-on note, the important senses conveyed by chance, and, contingency, will be explicated.

note b.

After a little “mind wringing” I’ve decided to refashion the coinage, Chance Strategic Contingency, into:


My thinking about terminology, having passed through the former term, has come, next, through the keep it simple stupid phase, and arrived at Strategic Serendipity.

Strategic Serendipity: in the context of individual human development, a chance event that comes to completely alter the course of a person’s development. Among the many kinds of change such an event impacts, the common kinds result in changes in: key relationships; career; location; interests.

(note–working term currently, substituted for strategic serendipity, is constitutive fortuity; (related to constitutive luck.)

Eventually, in my consideration of the analytical frame for constitutive fortuity–eg. transformative anthropology–I’ll be fitting taxonomy to the richer, higher order conceptualization for eventuation. Eventuation means for this purpose the conjunction of events necessary to prime a fortuity. One of the intriguing and hard difficulties in wandering around the current mixture of term and operation is that the informal language used to denote folk conceptions about serendipity, fortuity, inter alia, are weighed down by all sorts of divergent connotations.

For example, Paul Lester describes in his book The Spiral Web a restaurant’s assembly of strangers being there all by coincidence.

OED travels from definition of coincidence, 1 to 4, like this:

1. a.1.a The fact or condition of being coincident; the occupation of the same place or part of space.

4.4 A notable concurrence of events or circumstances having no apparent causal connexion.

The strong connotation in every day use does attach notability, or, the exceptional, or another similar sense, and attaches also an underlying sense of there being no causal connection between two isolate and discretely caused events. This leads the meaning enough so that normal use in English-speaking cultures–for example: what a coincidence!–distinguished between the happenstance circumstance of being in a room full of strangers, and, encountering in this room a stranger, only to find enough of a commonality for the happenstance, to morph into notable coincidence.

However, as much as this leads to semantic, conceptual, and terminological conundrums, it is becoming increasingly clear that the causality that differently situates strangers so him or her come to occupy the same part of space may come to collapse together, as-it-were, in the conjunction given by a fortuitous event.

In which case, the folk phrase what a coincidence stands in for: these disparate events come to eventuate together in a single conjunctive event

Feynman Diagram
This got me to thinking of both the metaphoric semblance, or, analogous collapse of histories. And of Dr. Feynman! With a kind of rubric, or top level category, constitutive fortuity, in hand, the sketching of a structural framework nears.

Something about the Feynman diagram compels me to play around with how elements of such a framework could be depicted.

February 2013

Dharma Wheel (Calhoun)
[Dharma as Chance, 2012 S.Calhoun, digital construction]

After we had dinner at Cafe Tandoor, I stood up, put on my coat, and turned around to see right behind me all along hanging on the wall all along was a beautiful, intricate Buddhist tapestry depicting the Dharma Wheel. I chuckled–synchronicity.

Earlier Susan and I had lunch with her cousin and her cousin’s husband–oh, yes at another Cleveland Heights cafe, The Stone Oven–and we spent a couple of animated hours describing chapters in our four different lives. Of course, having lunch together joins those four lives for a moment. I would add as joining those lives ‘again,’ but in truth this lunchtime meeting-up constituted my first extended visit with this lovely couple.

People who know me obviously already understand discussing deeply anything is one of my favorite things to do. I’m not always careful to avoid jawing too intensely about my own interests. There was for a spell something of that in our moment together. Luckily, Susan is expert at reigning me in. Still, I took advantage of the situation to first explain a bit about my research focus, and then deploy my interest as a possible launch pad for discussing what happened in our lives; what’s the story; and, ineluctably and implicitly from this, how did we get to this moment?

Fortuitous events may be unforeseeable but fortuity does not mean uncontrollability of its effects. Paradoxically, people can bring personal influence to bear on the fortuitous character of life (Bandura, 1998). They can make chance happen by pursuing an active life that increases the number and type of fortuitous encounters they will experience. Chance favors the inquisitive and venturesome, who go places, do things, and explore new activities. People also make chance work for them by cultivating their interests, enabling beliefs and competencies. These personal resources enable them to make the most of opportunities that arise unexpectedly. Pasteur put it well when he noted, “Chance favors only the prepared mind.” At a much earlier era, the philosopher Seneca, portrayed seeming serendipity as “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” The harder one works the luckier one gets. Even the distinguished lay philosopher, Groucho Marx, insightfully observed that people can influence how they play the hand fortuity deals them, “You have to be in the right place at the right time, but when it comes, you better have something on the ball.” Personal development and engagement in a wide range of activities gives people a hand in shaping the courses their lives take. Albert Bandura (2011) But What About That Gigantic Elephant in the Room?

Fortune strikes. In ‘explaining myself’ I made a bit of a hash of some of my explanations, going meta in the case of defining the word fortuity, and, just getting my synopsis of the plot of The Three Princes of Serendip mixed up with another tale. I shall now recover both elements.

Wheel of fortunes

various Wheels of Fortuna

First, let’s lean on the Oxford English Dictionary.

fortuity a chance occurrence.

1. a chance or accidental occurrence
2. fortuitousness
3. chance or accident

f. forte by chance, f. fors chance

1712 Addison Spect. No. 293 ?4 The highest Degree of it [Wisdom] which Man can possess, is by no means equal to fortuitous Events.


ad. L. fort?na, related to forti-, fors chance, and ferre to bear.

1. a.1.a Chance, hap, or luck, regarded as a cause of events and changes in men’s affairs. Often (after Latin) personified as a goddess, ‘the power supposed to distribute the lots of life according to her own humour’ (J.); her emblem is a wheel, betokening vicissitude.

fortune (n.)
c.1300, “chance, luck as a force in human affairs,” from Old French fortune “lot, good fortune, misfortune” (12c.), from Latin fortuna “chance, fate, good luck,” from fors (genitive fortis) “chance, luck,” possibly from PIE *bhrtu- and related to base *bher- (1) “to carry” (see infer).

The social history of chance in human life is fascinating. One of the meta aspects is: how the fortune teller delivers advance notice of future fate, and, in doing so, brings the future backward to its beginning. This is a modern way of describing the time-honored effect of having one’s fortune told, and clearly the bridge to having the future foretold is a single step long.

In a modern sense, the notional beginning is radically different than it was way-back-when, say, during the eras during which fortune telling is common to most cultures.  (There’s much which could be told about this subject.) The beginning, in the modern (or phenomenological) sense, is at the point the foretelling breaks the heretofore hidden chain of future events. A fortune teller creates a new beginning by bringing to the surface and into the light events in the future. From that moment on one knows their fortune; and, knowing one’s fortune paradoxically changes/cannot change every/anything!


Merton and Barber’s work provides a cornerstone in book length form of the surprisingly small academic literature about serendipity. The literature itself is mostly entered in the fields of social psychology (Bandura, Krantz, et al) and sociology of science (Merton, Barber, J. Austin, et al.)


Wikipedia’s treatment of The Three Princes of Serendip is fine.

“In ancient times there existed in the country of Serendippo, in the Far East, a great and powerful king by the name of Giaffer. He had three sons who were very dear to him. And being a good father and very concerned about their education, he decided that he had to leave them endowed not only with great power, but also with all kinds of virtues of which princes are particularly in need.”

The father searches out the best possible tutors. “And to them he entrusted the training of his sons, with the understanding that the best they could do for him was to teach them in such a way that they could be immediately recognized as his very own.”

When the tutors are pleased with the excellent progress that the three princes make in the arts and sciences they report it to the king. He however still doubts their training and summoning each (of his sons) in turn, declares that he will retire to the contemplative life leaving them as king. Each politely declines, affirming the father’s superior wisdom and fitness to rule.

The king is pleased, but fearing that his sons’ education may have been too sheltered and privileged, feigns anger at them for refusing the throne and sends them away from the land.

The lost camel

No sooner do the three princes arrive abroad than they trace clues to identify precisely a camel they have never seen. They conclude that the camel is lame, blind in one eye, missing a tooth, carrying a pregnant woman, and bearing honey on one side and butter on the other. When they later encounter the merchant who has lost the camel, they report their observations to him. He accuses them of stealing the camel and takes them to the Emperor Beramo, where he demands punishment.

Beramo asks how they are able to give such an accurate description of the camel if they have never seen it. It is clear from the princes’ replies that they have used small clues to infer cleverly the nature of the camel.

Grass had been eaten from the side of the road where it was less green, so the princes had inferred that the camel was blind on the other side. Because there were lumps of chewed grass on the road the size of a camel’s tooth, they inferred they had fallen through the gap left by a missing tooth. The tracks showed the prints of only three feet, the fourth being dragged, indicating that the animal was lame. That butter was carried on one side of the camel and honey on the other was evident because ants had been attracted to melted butter on one side of the road and flies to spilled honey on the other.

As for the woman, one of the princes said: “I guessed that the camel must have carried a woman, because I had noticed that near the tracks where the animal had knelt down the imprint of a foot was visible. Because some urine was nearby, I wet my fingers and as a reaction to its odour I felt a sort of carnal concupiscence, which convinced me that the imprint was of a woman’s foot.”

“I guessed that the same woman must have been pregnant,” said another prince, “because I had noticed nearby handprints which were indicative that the woman, being pregnant, had helped herself up with her hands while urinating.”

At this moment a traveller enters the scene to say that he has just found a missing camel wandering in the desert. Beramo spares the lives of the Three Princes, lavishes rich rewards on them and appoints them to be his advisors.

This story is where the word serendipity came from.


[f. Serendip, a former name for Sri Lanka + -ity.
A word coined by Horace Walpole, who says (Let. to Mann, 28 Jan. 1754) that he had formed it upon the title of the fairy-tale ‘The Three Princes of Serendip’, the heroes of which ‘were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of’.]

The faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident. Also, the fact or an instance of such a discovery. Formerly rare, this word and its derivatives have had wide currency in the 20th century.

I’m reminded of the equivalent story that stands as the counter-factual, Sura 18, “The Cave,” verses 60-82; the adventure of Moses and Khidr. Syed Abu-Ala’ Maududi’s commentary crystalizes the truth (for believers of a certain kind) that serendipity is but a veil.

The story of Khidr and Moses has been related in such a way as to supply the answer to the question of the disbelievers and to give comfort to the Believers as well. The lesson contained in this story is this “You should have full faith in the wisdom of what is happening in the Divine Factory in accordance with the will of Allah. As the reality is hidden from you, you are at a loss to understand the wisdom of what is happening, and sometimes if it appears that things are going against you, you cry out, ‘How and why has this happened’. The fact is that if the curtain be removed from the “unseen”, you would yourselves come to know that what is happening here is for the best. Even if some times it appears that something is going against you, you will see that in the end it also produces some good results for you.

Kizzy and SonnyKizzy and Sonny. Kizzy (from Kismet) was a stray kitten that found her way to our back door. I would guess our back door is the best back door for a stray to come up to! Sonny’s story is not dissimilar. While visiting the veterinarian with our two older cats, we noticed a kitten on the counter in the waiting area. Hard to miss! We learned somebody had left three kittens in a box in the parking lot the day before. With that the aid plucked a bluff colored kitten out of a waste basket full of shredded paper, and told us, “This one is spoken for!” Soon enough he was spoken for, and so Sonny comes home, learns to fly, and, becomes the central character in yet another story of serendipity.


(Turkish from Arab., qisma, ‘share, portion’).

The allocation of whatever occurs, hence the acceptance in Islam that God determines all things: see QADAR.

fate. XIX. — Turk. — Arab. (Pers.) ?ismat portion, fate, f. ?asama divide, apportion.

fate, destiny. The word comes (in the early 19th century, via Turkish) from Arabic ?ismat ‘division, portion, lot’, from ?asama ‘to divide’.

Westinghouse Dharma

Explaining my research is dull compared with eliciting person’s recollections of decisive serendipities in their own life. Yesterday I surely made the set-up a bit too complicated, yet we got the meat of the inquiry soon enough. As it always happens, whether or not I am informally or formally documenting these recollections, the recounting brings to the light of day spectacular, decisive chance events.

(This inverts the fortune teller’s strategy!)

Yesterday I learned of a decisive: lark road trip passing a corporate sign reminding the ‘subjects’ of a past employer and so providing the spark to investigate job opportunities–somewhere nearby the sign itself–and then subjects are accelerated through a hiring process–as in: hired on the spot.

This led me to remark, “It’s good to keep an out for the big “W” sign, the W standing for wisdom.”

Several sources for further exploration:

1. Explorations of Fortuitous Determinents of Life Paths
Albert Bandura (1998) A Comment in response to:

2. Taming Chance – Social Science & Everyday Narratives
David L. Krantz (1998)

published in Psychological Inquiry

3. Social Cognitive Theory: An Agentic Perspective
Albert Bandura (2001)

4. The Structure of Serendipity
M. DeRond (2005)


Chase, Chance, and Creativity: The Lucky Art of Novelty
James H. Austin

Luck: The Brilliant Randomness Of Everyday Life
Nicholas Rescher

Serendip at Bryn Mawr (my late mother’s alma mater-go figure)

The structure of what I term constructive fortuity has not been worked out in any robust way, to this date. In noting this, it is also true that the popular literature on serendipity is mostly a literature about luck. It has grown exponentially over the last several years. Such books tend to mystify the subject matter as much as clarify it.

My own musings and reports are always attached to this item here on the blog. Strategic Serendipity.

(It’s not a goal yet, but I would like to help derive a structural model from the qualitative reports–perhaps beginning with a taxonomy of constructive/structural elements, with these given to explicate dynamics such as micro and macro cruxes, orders of contingency, and other stuff–and not ending with formalizing the model because mathematicizing it is way beyond my abilities.)

Book Cover Strategic Serendipity

…a book I have begun, but not completed…

FULL STOP,  COLLEAGUE – If you’re reading this because you are deeply interested in serendipity, then, obviously, this encounter right now is presenting us both with a serendipitous opportunity.

Email me, call me (216) 269-5568 USA

Skype me: stephenc.calhoun, or Hangout, or Facetime

message me on LinkedIn.  . . .and we could begin.

What might I learn from you? What learning might we serendipitously create together?

4 Responses to Strategic Serendipity

  1. Pingback: Transformative Anthropology – update on project « squareONE explorations

  2. Pingback: Transformative Anthropology – Strategic Serendipity « squareONE explorations

  3. el don


    [btw, wordpress seems to think this answer is “a bit too short”. i think it is succinct.]

  4. Pingback: Nothing that might not happen in a universe of fortuity | squareONE explorations

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