Serendipity in Your Career

The following is a guest post by Neil J. Farber, MD, the author of Serendipity. Utilizing Everyday Unexpected Events to Improve Your Life and Career., where Dr. Farber explores the profound role that happy accidents have played in the creation of many things we take for granted, and takes it one step further to teach readers how to recognize serendipity and turn it into something meaningful. If you’d like to contribute a guest post to Money Q&A, be sure to check out our guest posting guidelines.

Serendipity by Neil J. Farber, MD

Most people think of serendipity as a monumental discovery or invention recorded in historical texts, and occurring as chance or luck. The truth is somewhat different. Whereas luck just happens to someone, serendipity is a common, minor occurrence that someone recognizes as being something interesting, and then takes advantage of the event in order to transform it into something worthwhile.

And, most importantly, these minor events that then are turned into something important are happening to all of us on a regular basis. My life and 40-year career as an academic general internal medicine physician was positively affected by a multitude of serendipitous events. The challenge is how to recognize them.

But then, how do you get whatever skills are necessary to recognize a serendipitous event? I answer these questions and others in my book, Serendipity. Utilizing Everyday Unexpected Events to Improve Your Life and Career.

But let me first address some of the ways in which serendipity can play a major role in your career. There are there major types of serendipity that might play a role in enhancing, or perhaps even shaping to a degree your work life: an event leading to a discovery or invention; an idea or happenstance that leads to a change in the process or function of your work environment; and an actual change in your job or career.

Discovery or Invention

Even if you are not an engineer, chemist, physicist, or medical researcher, sometimes a minor occurrence may lead you to a discovery or invention. Take, for instance, George de Mestral, who in 1941 invented Velcro. De Mestral was walking the slopes in his native Switzerland, and noticed when he returned home that his clothes and his dog’s fur were covered with cockleburs.

He became curious as to how they stuck so fast to clothing and fur, and discovered that they had a hook on one side and a loop on the other. He got the idea of making a cloth that could do the same thing. He had some trouble because of size variations with the fabrics he was using, and therefore got a team of French weavers to work with him.

In the mid1950s, de Mestral and his weavers came upon the correct solution, and he patented the result as Velcro. No one took notice until NASA realized a way of attaching objects to the walls of spacecraft in weightless condition was needed, and the agency bought a ton of the stuff. Suddenly Velcro took off (sorry for the pun) and became the item we know it as today.

If you look up George de Mestral or Velcro, you will find that de Mestral was an electrical engineer. I emphasize electrical, because although he may have had some knowledge about mechanical things, he certainly did not deal with this phenomenon in his usual work. Even he needed help with the discovery in the form of the French weavers. So if you were to find a minor unexpected event that could become a significant discovery or invention, the moral is don’t be afraid to ask for help. It can turn out to be a major advance and a significant boost to your career.

But often even simple serendipitous discoveries can occur where the discoverer needs no training or assistance. Take for example George Reid, a firefighter in Chicago in 1871, working in the hayloft. Back then, firehouses were built in three stories: the bottom floor for the fire trucks and horses, the second floor for the firefighters, and the third floor for the hayloft containing food for the horses.

The alarm bell went off, and George knew he would be late getting down to the truck. He suddenly got an idea—the hayloft had a pole for binding the hay to the truck. George put the pole down the circular stairwell and slid all the way down to the first floor where the trucks were (though likely with a number of splinters in his hands).

His captain, David B. Kenyon, was amazed at what George had done, and when they got back to the firehouse he had another pole sanded smooth and coated with paraffin, so all of the firemen could use it to slide down. It soon became known that their company, number 21, was always first at any fire, and thereafter the Chief of the Chicago Fire Department ordered every firehouse to have a similar setup. The idea then spread to the rest of the country.

So whether a simple idea stemming from a minor unexpected event that you could work with yourself, or one that is more complex requiring a grater expertise, the recognition of, and utilization of, such an everyday, unexpected event can be quite beneficial to your career.

Ideas of Process or Function

Have you ever been frustrated with the inefficiency of some part of your office or business? Think about how much it would be worth (monetarily and psychologically) if those inefficiencies could be removed. Often an unexpected event may give someone the clue to make a change for the better. I have had such moments in my career.

I was the Medical Director of a faculty clinic in general internal medicine in a university on the West Coast. Like many other such clinics, we had an electronic health record (all patients’ records were computerized), and the patients had a way of contacting our office through a secure electronic portal similar to email. But we cautioned patients not to use the portal for more serious medical issues, as our nurses did not pick up those messages for sometimes as long as 72 hours. They usually answered phone calls first, believing them to be more urgent. Despite the warning, we still did have an occasional patient who used the portal inappropriately.

Luckily, no deaths occurred because of it, but some patients’ treatment of an urgent or even emergent situation was sometimes delayed. Yet when I looked in the literature, I was amazed to find other articles indicating that patients always used the electronic portal appropriately. Since I had been trained in survey research, I decided to create a survey containing hypothetical situations that were urgent or emergent in nature and asked patients we gave the survey to how likely they would be to send an electronic message as opposed to either calling our office or just going to the emergency room. 1

Most patients got it right, but a fairly significant portion of them would just simply send a message with conditions as serious as abdominal pain (with a possible appendicitis) or even chest pain (a possible heart attack). We changed our process in response; the nurses were required to at least scan all electronic messages several times a day to be sure no emergencies existed. The emphasis shifted from solely attending to phone calls, to a mix of phone calls and electronic messages based on their relative importance.

Similar minor events also have been utilized in order to advance the various processes of medical care. I am sure such process and function change in other professions and businesses have also garnered attention. Successful changes that improve the functioning of an office or business attract the attention of CEOs and managers and are often very good for one’s career.

Changing Your Position, Job, or Profession

Sometimes an unexpected event can influence where you work, or even whether you decide to work in a different field. Many individuals change based on some minor event that they perceive and then decide on a different course. I have always been an academic physician, teaching, doing research, and also seeing patients in a university or university-affiliated hospital.

In 1997, I was the Co-Chief of the Division of General Internal Medicine at the Philadelphia Veterans’ Affairs Medical Center and Professor of Medicine at the Medical College of Pennsylvania Hahnemann University. There were some financial difficulties at MCP-Hahnemann, and it was decided to reduce their resident pool in order to conserve resources. MCP-Hahnemann, therefore, decided to withdraw its presence from the Philadelphia VA. This would have left me with a purely VA clinical practice with no time allowed for teaching or research. I needed something more.

I began looking in the Philadelphia area for suitable positions, as I did not want to uproot my family at that time. I hadn’t found anything, but was planning on going to the yearly conference of the Society of General Internal Medicine, of which I am a member. There is always a board at the meeting at which jobs are posted, and I diligently looked at it every day, with no luck. Lots of jobs were posted that I would like to have, but none in the Philadelphia area.

The morning of the last full day of the meeting I saw a small yellow paper, ripped out from a yellow notepad, about the size of a notecard stuck to the board. I assumed no one would post a job in that fashion, and almost ignored it. But I became curious, and read over what it said. It was a job offer at Christiana Care Health System, a short commute from where I lived in the western Philadelphia suburbs.

I called the person who posted the job, set up interviews, and eventually became the Chief of General Internal Medicine Faculty at Christiana Care Health System, I job I cherished for 10 years. The only reason I eventually left the position was to be close to two of our kids who had migrated to San Diego, and so I would no longer suffer through Northeast winters. So often a minor event can lead to a welcome change in you work situation.

Recognizing Serendipity If I haven’t yet convinced you of the commonality of serendipitous events, there are studies to show how important they really are in one’s career. It has been shown in one study2 of older adults using a brief questionnaire, that 63% of men and 57% of women indicated that their careers were affected by serendipitous events. It may be that the rest just didn’t recognize those minor, unexpected events and their importance, when they occurred. So you do need to have the skills to be aware of them.

The first skill one needs is that of mindfulness. This includes not only being aware of your surroundings and everything in them, but also aware of the fact that these unexpected events are happening to all of us. Many people rush through their days without stopping to take in everything. We are a society that emphasizes the doing rather than the being. One can’t be faulted for that, but you might be losing out on many opportunities of a serendipitous nature. So when you can, it makes sense to slow down and look around you. Many books are written about how to achieve mindfulness.

Secondly, you have to become observant, in both visual and auditory arenas. The unexpected events don’t always readily appear. If you were walking down the street and there was a penny lying on the ground, would you notice it? The answer for most people is understandably, probably not. But what if that penny was a 1922D penny worth $5,000? In concert with observational skills, you then need to have appropriate curiosity about things around you.

When I noticed the yellow scrap of paper pinned to the job posting board at the meeting I mentioned, if I hadn’t been curious about what it might say, I would never have obtained the job I cherished for 10 years. Whenever you finding yourself asking questions beginning with how or why, you are on the right track to curiosity that might lead to a serendipitous event. You might also need to make connections with your previous experiences, education, or training in order to determine how to take advantage of that unexpected event.

Unexpected events are all around you. If you acquire these skills, and utilize the recognized unexpected events, you may be able to enhance your career in many ways as I did during mine.

1 – Farber NJ, Wastila, L, Brown, L, Fontanesi, J. Patients’ perceptions of electronic system messaging with physicians. J Gen Pract. 2016; 4(3): 460-465. 2 Betsworth, Deborah G and J. C. Hansen. “The Categorization of Serendipitous Career Development Events.” Journal of Career Assessment. 1996, vol. 4: 91-98.

About the Author

Neil J. Farber is a Professor Emeritus of Clinical Medicine at the University of California, San Diego, and a docent at the San Diego Air & Space Museum. He has been an academic internal medicine physician for 40 years, teaching, researching, and providing patient care in medical schools initially on the East Coast. He has received numerous awards, including Top Doctor of San Diego five times, and is a member of the FDA Non-Prescription Drug Advisory Committee. He has published over 60 research papers and has had a multitude of serendipitous events occur, which have significantly (and positively) influenced his career and his personal life.

Leave a Comment