Engineering Serendipity

The art and science of creating chance

This post was originally published on Medium in 2015.

In 2014 I was lucky enough to speak at Morning Prayers, a secular Harvard tradition that has existed since its founding in 1636. Below is a copy of my remarks.

Harvard University · Senior Talks — Zachary Hamed '14 — Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Good morning. My name is Zachary Hamed, and I am a senior in Leverett House studying computer science. I’d like to begin with a reading from Ecclesiastes:

The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.

Chance—and its sister, serendipity—are the under-appreciated forces that drive the twists and turns in life. Serendipity is defined as the “the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way.” It was first penned by Horace Walpole in a letter to Horace Mann in 1754, who said he was inspired by an old Persian fairy tale called “The Three Princes of Serendip.”

As the story goes, the King of Serendip had three sons, whom he had educated with the best tutors in the land. After several years, the king felt his sons had mastered all the knowledge of the arts and sciences, but feared they had been too sheltered and privileged in their education. He sent his sons to the desert, where they wandered for days.

Late in their trip, they met a farmer who asked if they had seen his missing camel. The princes asked the farmer if his camel was blind in one eye, had a gap in its teeth, and was injured in one leg. When the farmer heard this, he accused the princes of stealing his camel and took them to the king.

When the king asked how his sons knew such intimate details of a stranger’s camel, they explained that their days of wandering had led them to notice small details in the environment. An animal had eaten the tougher and browner grass on the left side of the road, leading them to believe the animal was blind in one eye. There were lumps of chewed grass along the road that were the size of a camel’s tooth. And there were only 3 camel footprints on the road with the fourth being dragged, leading them to believe the camel was disabled in one leg. As soon as they finished, a traveller entered and reported he had found a lost camel in the desert. The princes were rewarded handsomely and their intuition trusted for years to come.

The story hits close to home because Cambridge resembles Serendip all too often. It is easy for us to be so ensconced in our research, our work, our meetings and our routine that we don’t make time for productive and creative wandering.

In the 1950s, a pair of medical researchers—one at NYU and one at Cornell—accidentally injected rabbits with a certain enzyme and noticed that the rabbits’ ears folded over. Neither had the time or funding to pursue the anomaly, so they buried it away in their lab notebooks. Several years later, only one of the professors decided to review his research notes when he realized the flopping ears were actually more important than his initial research was. His work led to a Nobel Prize, and a subsequent sociology paper on the topic coined the terms serendipity gained (for example, reviewing your notes and deciding to pursue a question further) and serendipity lost—making the same discovery but never following up.

In short, serendipity enters our lives several times a day. We can gain it or lose it. But the best part is—we can engineer it. MIT Professor Ethan Zuckerman covers this phenomenon of creating luck. “Engineering serendipity,” he says, “is this idea that we can help people come across unexpected but helpful connections at a better than random rate. And in some ways it’s based on trying to reassess this notion of serendipitous as lucky — to think of serendipitous as smart.”

Harvard engineers serendipity at every point it can. You’re placed with a random group of your classmates when you enter as a freshman. Even when you’re allowed to choose your roommates in sophomore year, you’re placed randomly into houses and a lottery randomly places you into rooms. The lectures in your general education class could help you on a completely unrelated assignment in a different class. And have you noticed how many walking paths there are outside this very church? Walking through Harvard Yard is a case study in serendipity—it’s almost impossible to avoid seeing someone you know.

We meet best friends at events in Ticknor Lounge, significant others in early morning sections in Sever, mentors over lunch in Leverett dining hall, and overhear job opportunities in Lamont Cafe. Every minute on Harvard’s campus is a chance encounter waiting to happen.

Harvard’s secret is it takes a diverse group of people and squeezes them into a small, confined space. But the real world is a big place. And the scariest part is that serendipity will no longer be engineered for us. In fact, New York City, where I’ve been living for the past 4 months, seems to be engineered against serendipity. Have you ever tried meeting someone new on a New York City subway train? In a city of 8 million people, how do you find your new best friend? Your new job opportunity?

As always, Ralph Waldo Emerson provides the answer. “Shallow men,” he says, “believe in luck or in circumstance. Strong men believe in cause and effect.” It is up to us to engineer serendipity once we leave Harvard’s gates. So talk to the person behind you in line at the coffee shop. Knock on your neighbor’s door in the otherwise anonymous apartment building you live in. Ask your friends to introduce you to someone new and go to lunch with them.

Be open to the unexpected today. Relish the uncertain. And embrace serendipity.

Zachary Hamed @zmh