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In Search Of A Prince Of Serendip
Draw your circle, friends.
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Okay. For today’s deep dive, let’s get historical.
It’s a late January day in 1754, and Horace Walpole, writer and 4th Earl of Orford (that’s not a typo), is scratching out a letter to his friend Horace Mann.
It’s one of those “things are tolerable, old boy, if tedious and rather wearying” letters that English people have excelled at for hundreds of years, so let’s skip to the interesting part:
“…this discovery, indeed, is almost of that kind which I call Serendipity, a very expressive word, which, as I have nothing better to tell you, I shall endeavor to explain to you: you will understand it better by the derivation than the definition.
I once read a silly fairy tale, called “The Three Princes of Serendip [a former name for Ceylon, now Sri Lanka]”: as their Highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of: for instance, on the them discovered that a mule blinds of the right eye had travelled the same road lately, because the grass was eaten only on the left side, where it was worse than on the right – now do you understand Serendipity?
One of the most remarkable instances of this accidental sagacity, (for you must observe that no discovery of a thing you are looking for comes under this description) was of my Lord Shaftsbury, who, happening to dine at Lord Chancellor Clarendon’s, found out the marriage of the Duke of York and Mrs. Hyde, by the respect with which her mother treated her at table…”
Perhaps because of the sheer dullness of the example Walpole chooses to illustrate his theme, the term serendipity would take at least a century more to catch on (the first recorded use of serendipitous is from 1943).
But now? Now it’s firmly in the public domain – and good job too, because we’ve never needed it this badly.
As I intend to prove to you in the coming weeks, serendipity and curiosity (with the former a happy consequence of the latter) aren’t just idle pastimes.
If you’re incurious, you’re more likely to develop anxiety, crushing loneliness and other truly miserable mental states. There’s even a medical term for chronic incuriosity: anhedonia, the inability to feel interest and pleasure in your surroundings.
It’s a common symptom of clinical depression.
Considering what’s going on in the world right now, everyone should be on high alert for signs of early anhedonia. As I write this, the UK is in another lockdown – a word that wouldn’t have meant much outside military circles before March 2020. Vaccines are rolling out, 10 million of us Brits have received our first jab - but we’re still firmly in this winter of discontent. For now, we need to stay safe, stay smart and stay close to home.
Let’s rewind for a second. Cast your mind back half a human lifetime, to February 2020.
When was the last time you sat in a coffee-shop, within elbowing-distance of strangers (little knowing this would be the last time you did it for a while)? Can you remember anything specific about it?
On that day, I guarantee serendipity struck you. It strikes all the time in coffee shops: all those strangers with their alien ways and unknown inner worlds, noisily jostling for somewhere to sit and gently hypercaffeinate themselves to deal with (or prepare for) a long day. All those overlapping universes of experience and knowledge! It’s easy to see and hear and learn something new.
There you were, sipping your drink, and you overheard an unsolicited snippet of entertaining conversation…
“…so he says to me, ‘how do you like your tea: strong, weak or just right?’ I mean, how does anyone’s brain get like that?”
“Yeah but, you know why paper-cuts hurt so much, right? Right? Because it’s so fascinating, listen to this…”
“They’re leather though. It’s unethical. I can’t buy brand new leather boots! I mean, I have some already, but I want to keep them for special occasions.”
“Ever seen that film, Contagion? Stupidest thing I ever saw, totally ridiculous.”
…and without meaning to, you listen in for a minute or so, and learn something about what it’s like to be another person.
Or you stop at a park bench to munch a sandwich, and a person having the same idea sits down next to you, and if you’re both feeling extremely brave, you stumble into pleasant but super-awkward small-talk. (This is for British people. Your mileage may vary.)
Or maybe you’re travelling – that thing that used to be so much fun before COVID-19, and hopefully will be again soon – and serendipity was inescapable because everything was just so foreign and new. Accidental discoveries are easy when everything you meet is a relentless parade of novelty.
However you get it, serendipity is good for you. It also feels nice. It makes you feel alive and connected, part of something bigger and more meaningful. It puts a spring in your step – and without it, life seems monotonous, drab and depressingly boring.
That’s what lockdowns are starting to feel like. None of the fun of strangers, none of the joy of finding new things, and yet again, the same old things to do. Marking off the days until we’re free again.
But – is that really all we can do?
A few months ago, I started asking myself these questions:
Can you get some of the serendipitous thrill of travel when you have to stay home?
Does a pandemic lockdown have to be so damn boring?
Why are paper-cuts so painful?
So I set myself a lockdown challenge. Using an online mapping tool, I drew a circle a mile wide around the apartment where I was living in Scotland, and began hunting for serendipity within it.
I’d go for a walk, I’d pay close attention to everything i could see, and I’d try to “overhear” something new about the world around me – usually triggering a question that I could research online when I got back home.
From October to December, and once again very soon, I’ve been posting the results on my Instagram account, under the hashtag #WithinOneMile.
It is a fun way to learn something new about the world on my static-but-always-changing doorstep, and it gave me all sorts of ideas for this newsletter, so I’m going to keep doing it.
If this idea sounds fun to you, or at least usefully, distractingly daft, here’s how you can have a go yourself.
1. Draw Your Circle.
The online tool I used is this one. You may find something better.
I also chose one mile for location-specific reasons: because the island I was living on at the end of 2020 was small and I didn’t want to be forced to plunge into the Scottish Atlantic in early Winter – and also because I didn’t want a circle that covered the whole island, which would feel like cheating, by giving me too many lazy options. A challenge should be, you know, a challenge.
If a mile is too small for you, go with two miles, or three, or five (stop there: more than five is silly in the wrong way) – or you could even use half a mile, if your neighbourhood’s dense with stuff to get curious about.
2. Get Specific
It’s hard to motivate yourself to do something with an unclear outcome. For this reason, don’t ‘go in search of serendipity,’ because failing to find something will feel like a failed quest. Instead, set yourself a clearly-defined outdoorsy task, like “walk to the top of that hill and back” or “walk right around that wood”, or “sit at that place for twenty minutes, watching and listening the hell out of everything”.
Also, take a notebook and a pen – or if you prefer, use your phone to take audio notes (just make sure it’s not distracting you with the clamour of notifications from the outer world. Be here, not there.)
3. Share It
I chose Instagram because it’s easy to update, because it’s been annoying me for a long time as I never knew what I wanted to do with it, and because there’s a hard word-count limit in the text box – meaning you can only woffle on so much.
If you use some other platform to collate your findings, set some sensible limits for yourself, so it doesn’t spiral out of control into a time-destroying mess that’s impossible to keep up with. If you prefer, go the other way: use Twitter’s 280-character limit (you can still build threads of tweets), or set some other micro-blogging limitation upon yourself. Whatever feels doable and keep-uppable.
And while you’re at it, either use the #WithinOneMile hashtag, or ignore it and make your own! This isn’t a branded campaign and I’m not measuring how influential I am.
Steal anything at will, and do this your way, with my unreserved blessing.
Further ideas for lockdowny exploration
Author & adventurer Al Humphreys is currently exploring a single map, centred on where he lives. Follow his challenge here.
Back in June of this year, travel writer Tim Hannigan explored a 2km-wide circle on Ordnance Survey Ireland sheet 46, centred on his home – the furthest that lockdown would let him travel at the time.
If walking is your thing and you’re in the UK, go to the Slow Ways network map, zoom in and find a few hyperlocal routes to explore.
If you insist on putting your feet up for the next few months (fair enough), please read this brilliant book, which led directly to me assembling this ‘ere newsletter.