Serendipity - glossary

A word that has a practical use within metadesign

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Maneki-Neko (Lucky Cat)

First introduced by Horace Walpole (1754), the word serendipity speaks of an auspiciously aimless state of mind. However, many pragmatists may feel that it is a fanciful, self-indulgent idea. (Aristotle said: "What is not capable of action cannot do anything by chance"). In more modern terms, it offends the Protestant belief that success only derives from target-setting and hard work. Using this kind of logic, serendipity exists only in dreams or fables - not the 'real' world. Like Utopia, it defines its own impossibility. However, even St. Paul noted that "faith is the evidence of things unseen - the substance of things hoped for" (Heb. 11.1). (Perhaps he was meant something similar to the Zen idea of action-without-thought?). Blaise Pascal put it another way: "The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing."

Bookshop in Paris

But there is a more practical, down-to-earth way to explain serendipity. We harness it whenever we browse the bookshelves of a library. Even though we cannot know what is in the books, we still feel recognition for that which inexplicably jumps out at us. Why deny the existence of serendipity, just because we cannot satisfactorily explain it? For, if we deny it, we may have have lost an important faculty. Our invented term pre-purpose, reminds us that we can act before we are clear about our purpose. When we do so, it is helpful to adopt a strongly optimistic approach. After all, if we believe that miracles are unattainable, we will probably fail to see them.

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