Last week Lane and I had the good fortune to attend the Summit Series, which above else, must be described as a large-scale exercise in planned serendipity. This year the TED-like conference was held in Tahoe, at the scenic Squaw Valley, not quite as remote as the Caribbean cruise ship of last year, but just far enough removed from real life to nudge participants into a more open state of mind.
The conference’s success is based on an incredibly well-curated guest list of ~600 over-achievers from a wide range of backgrounds and careers. It extended to the design of gathering spaces that encouraged movement and surprise (including my favorite, a secret speakeasy behind a broom closet). And it culminated in a schedule that was so full of amazing talks and activities that it became too rich and fast-moving to plan around. After a few hours it seems impossible to NOT get derailed by a chance meeting while walking from one event to another. Confronted by this dynamic eventually most people tend to relinquish their personal schedule to chance, even when they have some ideal schedule in mind. At the Summit Series, many of my most memorable moments were conversations with people I’d never know to seek out—a psychoanalyst/author who focuses on women facing forty, a designer of hand-made ties from a post-apocalyptic Detroit, the host of a popular show on MTV.
This surprise is all by design. In the opening ceremony one of the organizers announced to all the attendees a few “unwritten rules” for the event, which included “build friendships,” “show love,” “have fun,” and two others that struck me as particularly relevant to planned serendipity:
“Go on a learning safari:Everyone has something to teach. Everyone has something to learn. Take an intellectual, spiritual and creative journey.”
“Embrace Synchronicity.The unexpected moments are often the most meaningful. Embrace them.”
What great advice, I thought. Who could argue with these rules? Yet something was rubbing me the wrong way. Hmmm. “Embrace synchronicity.” Synchronicity??? “Unexpected moments are the most meaningful?” That’s not synchronicity at all, I wanted to blurt out. That’s serendipity. The words may sound the same, but they have VERY different meanings. Blurring the lines of these ideas obscures how equally interesting and useful each one is.
Serendipity means looking for one thing and finding another. It’s a regular occurrence for anyone with an inquisitive mind, and a bedrock of scientific, artistic and business breakthrough. It was coined by a British aristocrat to impress his pen pal way back in the 1700s.
By contrast, synchronicity is a far more recent invention—it was coined in the 1920s by Carl Jung to mean something quite distinct. The mystically inclined psychoanalyst Jung noticed that sometimes two or more events would happen at the same time, without any common cause, but whose coincidence, the mused, might imply a deeper meaning. Perhaps, he thought, we can categorize phenomena by meaning just as credibly as we categorize them by causality. For instance, at the very moment you’re planning a barbecue cookout the Doors song “Light my Fire” comes on the radio. Or you’re thinking that you should call your mom, and at that very moment your phone rings and it’s her! What are the odds? Synchronicity suggests that these parallel events are somehow connected, despite the fact that they’re disconnected.
Jung intended synchronicity to have spiritual connotations, suggesting a larger framework or deeper order behind the logical, one-thing-leads-to-another world we are conscious of. Consider the Police song Syncronicity, on the album of the same name:
A sleep trance, a dream dance
A shaped romance
A connecting principle
Linked to the invisible
Logic so inflexible
Yet nothing is invincible
If we share this nightmare
Then we can dream
Serendipity, on the other hand, was intended by Horace Walpole to describe a very human “faculty.” It is a skill, not a metaphysical construct, and one entirely susceptible to scientific inquiry and exposition.
So these are two very different concepts, but they do share a very important trait: they rely on the mind to make a connection between two or more things (at least in the observing). The same mind capable of combining the chance discovery with previous experiences or stored ideas may also be likely to notice synchronicity if it occurs. Unlike synchronicity, a single instance of serendipity can take years to fully occur, with the initial observation taking root in the observer’s mind, and only much later becoming associated with something else that transforms it into a true creative leap. On the flip side, synchronicity can sometimes act as a kind of compressed serendipity—one chance event made meaningful by a related event happening at exactly the same time.
As Sting implies in his lyrics, Jung linked the metaphysical dimension of synchronicity to the dream world, both which he also thought exposed a deeper order. While serendipity makes no such claims, the fact is that dreams are an underappreciated path for making connections that matter in our waking life. There are many examples: Elias Howe inventing the sewing machine after dreaming of tribal natives who had holes in the top of their spears (solving the threaded needle that had stumped him), Albert Einstein’s dreams about the nature of time that led to his relativity theory, Friedrich Kekulé discovering the structure of the Benzene molecule after dreaming of a snake eating its own tail. The greatest minds have been those who have connected to their own subconscious as the greatest pattern matching machine at their disposal.
Serendipity and synchronicity may be very different concepts, but they play well together.