Tuesday, July 21, 2015

How Serendipitous Discoveries Make Great Learning Stories!

I pause the usual programming to share this story and I apologize for the long post. I originally posted this on facebook for my family and friends and quickly realized that this is becoming a learning experience. More about that at the end of the story...

But here it is, as I wrote it on my facebook wall with the accompanying picture.


My elder sister and family have recently moved to Vancouver and this weekend, they finally got their hands on their car! Since it is a big car, we all decided to head out and make the most of the sunny day. We decided to visit Lynn Valley Suspension Park. But seems we were not the only ones! We went in circles for about an hour trying to look for a parking spot but ultimately did not find one. With a packed picnic basket, we made our way to Ambleside beach. After a quick bite, we decided to walk up to the pier and stand at our usual spot. And under my fingers I felt something on the wooden plank. It was an earring. Not just any earring. I believed it was my lost earring that I didn't know I had lost at Ambleside! And we haven't been to the pier since April or maybe March.

So, there it was...a serendipitous discovery of what was once a part of me and my life...just sitting there, waiting for me.

My family was amused at what just happened. Let me say they 'respectfully' did not believe it was my long lost earring. All reasoning was...well logical. I mean, it had been more than 4 months and I didn't even remember if I wore it then or several months before that. And many others would/could have the same pair. And yes, all the rains and all the hands and all the crab fishing ropes and nets did not dislodge this earring from the wooden plank.

But logic apart, I 'knew' it was my earring. In fact, I had bought this pair for my daughter while I was on a business trip to Ghana, Africa. I had thought it was light-enough for her small ears and it matched perfectly with a necklace. But how I came upon it yesterday, was shocking, amusing and so humbling.

We started out for a different place and for some reason, we did not find a parking spot at Lynn. Then, we almost decided not to walk to the pier. We all actually did come back to the car but could not resist being at Ambleside and not walking up to the pier. But more importantly, of all the spots, and the seven of us who were standing on that particular side, I had to go stand right 'there' with my hand on top of the earring. If any of the others would have found it, it would mean nothing to them. But somehow, I was to find it.

Anyways, I couldn't believe it and took a picture and kept the earring in my pocket. I always keep the other halves of my lost earrings safely. Because... you never know. So, we came home and I started looking for the other half. I did not find it in the usual places. I kept thinking about it all night. And in the morning, I just knew where to look for the other one.

And there they are. Finally, a pair. Together again. Some things are just meant to be together and the universe conspires to bring them back together against all odds, logic and reasoning.

The term, Serendipity means a "fortunate happenstance" or "pleasant surprise". Although it is one of the ten English words hardest to translate in other languages (as per Wikipedia), we have all had our tryst with serendipity. I am fascinated by the word 'serendipitous'. It sounds beautiful...almost magical.

As a learning designer, I first came across the words 'serendipitous learning' back in 2011 via Jane Hart's blog. I was quickly drawn to this aspect of learning as it was so different from my usual logical, organized, structured and analytical bent of mind. Later, I read a paper by Ilona Buchem about twitter and microblogging as serendipitous learning spaces. More recently, I read Jane Bozarth's column here and how, as instructional designers, we can create and support serendipitous learning. 

So, there was some serendipitous aspect to discovering my earring. It was certainly unexpected and there was no obvious objective to look for the lost earring. In the pursuit of something else, I found something else. Sure, there was some value after finding it, but there was nothing ground-breaking about it - not as many other famous serendipitous inventions and discoveries (penicillin, microwave, post-it notes!) 

But here's the fun part. To me, this is what real serendipitous learning is all about. 

After I made the discovery and shared it with my friends and family, I was overwhelmed by their likes and comments on the post! My story ran home with a few people who had perhaps made similar discoveries in their life and had a story to share. In less than 24 hours, I saw 70+ likes and read beautiful comments... and the 'likes' and comments continue to pour in as I type this post.
Now, for the 'real' serendipitous learning out of an equally serendipitous discovery. 

This incident and the experience really made me think.

I was wondering if we could do something to become more serendipitous in life and cause more of such chance encounters that have a happy or beneficial consequences.

I read some more about serendipity and that made me really step back and reflect about the things that can make us more serendipitous. And, this is what I discovered :) 

What makes us serendipitous learners and discoverers?

1) Don't be afraid to walk a path that is different from your plan
We could not find a parking spot to save our lives that day. We were disappointed and frustrated. After we got over the anger, we all huddled and decided to go somewhere else and do something completely different from our original idea. There was no suspension bridges to cross in the new plan - but we were now looking forward to a picnic on the beach! We gave chance a chance and that allowed and enabled serendipity to happen. 

2) Be sensitive; observe and absorb everything that you come across 
Although some people refer to such series of events and chance encounters as luck, I would think that serendipity is more about being observant. An inquisitive mind that remains curious to know and to find out more is more likely to make serendipitous discoveries. Louis Pasteur said, “In the fields of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind.” My fingers felt something on that plank and I decided to find out more. If I had dismissed what I observed and felt as something trivial or uninteresting, you would not be reading this post today and there would have been nothing for me to learn. 

3) Share your small serendipitous learning discoveries with others
When we share our discoveries and learning with others, it makes them share their stories. It then becomes a chain reaction of serendipitous learning and each person involved and connected in this path gains from the conversation. In less than 24 hours, my post on facebook made me realize how we all have these serendipitous moments that invigorate our lives and by sharing it with others, we 'pay it forward'. I have found that often, it is a single question that leads to a train of thoughts, meaningful conversations and co-inspiration towards generating even better serendipitous discoveries and learnings (#lrnchat: What did you learn today?)

I leave you with this thought by Wendy Doniger, the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago, who shared this during a keynote address at the 2007 ASIANetwork Conference:

" I would define serendipity as the art of appreciating a new possibility when you come across it unexpectedly, the willingness to veer from your projected path and take one you never thought of. Serendipity is particularly valuable when things, inevitably, do not turn out as you wished. At such moments, if you are a serendipitist (a word that James Joyce coined in 1939, in Finnegans Wake), you discover that the new possibilities before you are in fact more useful than what you had intended to do, that what you found turns out to be better than what you were looking for."

PS:  I also learned that the word 'serendipity' comes from Serendip, an old name for Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka), from Arabic Sarandib, from Sanskrit Simhaladvipa "Dwelling-Place-of-Lions Island." 
On 28th of January, 1754, Horace Walpole coined the term 'serendipity' in a letter, referring to a fairy tale called 'The Three Princes of Serendip'. These princes 'were always making discoveries by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of'.

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