Widgets Magazine


Serendipity is bullshit

I’ve been thinking a lot about the power of serendipity. Here in Silicon Valley, the word gets thrown around a lot, usually in a magical context. Some people believe that serendipity is something that descends from the heavens to special people at special moments. Then there’s the school of thought that claims that serendipity “comes to those who work hard for it.” According to these people, preparing yourself to be lucky is not only possible, it is one’s responsibility in the meritocracy they believe Silicon Valley to be.

And then there’s my chain of thought. I have come to realize that serendipity is, for the lack of a better word, bullshit. I think that we need to do everything we can to eliminate it from the world.

Why would we want to eliminate something so magical and beautiful? The thing about serendipity is that, by definition, it only happens once in a while. And as with all the flaws with people’s ability to understand probability, we are much more likely to notice the few times that serendipity happens to us than all the times that it doesn’t.

Imagine running into a close friend when you least expected to see them. It is easy to appreciate the magic of the coincidence, but perhaps not so easy to conceptualize all the times in the past when you might have just missed a friend. I’ve come to be so disillusioned with serendipity that when it happens to me, I sometimes question whether it is even justified to enjoy it.

The thing is, as a designer, I’m not someone who likes to leave things to chance. Indeed, the phrase “by design” by definition implies “not accidental.” What I cannot stand are things that just “happen to be.” Good designers like to be completely in control of the experience they design. They want everything to be exactly how they intended it to be. On the other hand, a common feature of bad design is when the user is confused and needs to rely on guesswork to proceed. A designer that relies on chance to get the user to accomplish any task is not doing his job right.

We’ve all had the experience of discovering that we share an unlikely mutual friend with someone we know. It is a beautiful discovery and it makes us remember how small the world is. Before Facebook, the process of figuring out that you shared a mutual friend with someone relied almost entirely on chance: one person mentioning the mutual friend in a conversation, or someone accidentally discovering an artifact, like a picture, that led to that realization. Back then, serendipity was the best solution. I cannot imagine sitting down with someone and asking them to name every single person they know to find the overlap between our networks.

Similarly, I sometimes discover things that my friends and I have in common after years of knowing them. When that happens, I find it hard to appreciate the beauty of serendipity. Instead, I start thinking about all the other things I don’t know about my friends and also about whether there are people out there that I would absolutely love to be friends with, but neither of us know it.

A lot of the purpose of technology is to remove serendipity and replace it with design. As we all supply more and more information about ourselves to our computers, they gain the ability to do the annoying part of comparing us with other people to find the right experiences for us. In addition, as a lot of the things we do in our life move online, much of this data can be collected passively—admittedly without our explicit permission at times. What this allows us to do is to live in a world where good things happen more often; instead of relying purely on chance for us to find something that makes us happy, we can create a world where such experiences happen all the time.

There is no doubt that it is magical to discover something by accident: to stumble upon a scenic place or an amazing restaurant. However, by trading away some of the pleasure of this magic, we can choose to live in a world where we can have these amazing experiences more often. And I think that is a sacrifice worth making. Finding a friend to go to a concert with ten times is much better than running into a friend when you’re at a concert alone once. Making friends with someone amazing on a flight once, even though it makes for a great story, is still not better than finding ten amazing friends on some website. We are so stuck in the charm of chance that we don’t see all the power of the iceberg hidden beneath the surface.

Contact Angad Singh at angadsingh@stanford.edu.

  • d.bs

    It’s nice to see the words “design” and “bullshit” in the same piece.

    If everything were truly controlled by the designer, then the experience would be limited to that of which s/he conceived. That would be quite limiting. Bad technology does exactly that: limit the user. Good technology lays a foundation for the unpredictable.

    A life mediated by designed experiences makes relationships lazy. But so it goes. Laziness is part of us. We’ll not say no.

  • Rick Martinez

    Hi Angad: Good article. Thought-provoking. You make a good case for computerization. When it comes to meeting persons of the opposite sex to date and relationships, I like serendipity. In fact, when it comes to life, living, being, and doing–I like serendipity. Wonderful surprise doesn’t prove what is impossible; it affirms what is possible. And, it’s not only fun, it’s importantly “hopeful,” an essential element of life.

    Serendipity happens not only personally, but in all professions. For example, in medical research I met a wonderful doc, Oswald Avery–who in 1944 described DNA, some 9 years before Watson and Crick of double-helix fame–who told me science relies on surprise, a cascade of surprises and on “the surprise of being wrong.” How about the defense attorney who has worked on closing statements for three days and nights and is now before the jury–sees an emotional juror and “serendipitously” thinks of an alternative close. And, I can even envision you, Angad, at your design table–designing away–when in an instant you get a thought from somewhere, to make a last minute important change. Do you make the change?

    A scientist believes in a hypothesis, and many people believe in dreams. Both must
    believe something to be true “before knowing it is true.” Yes, science can discover by accident, but nothing is “revealed” by accident. Again, serendipity does not prove what is impossible; it affirms what is possible.