Luck or serendipity?

Many observers consider the shareholders of the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf (CBTL) chain lucky for having exited the competitive coffee market through its recent acquisition by Jollibee. I call it serendipitous, potentially for Jollibee, to turn around the ailing coffee chain using its retail marketing prowess.

In business, we attribute good deals to ability and luck, but seldom on serendipity. What’s the difference?

Authors and entrepreneurs Thor Muller and Lane Becker in their seminal book Get Lucky ascribed this not just on dumb luck but rather to a series of strategic moves on the part of CBTL and Jollibee leadership that led to the landmark acquisition. The authors say that “luck is a fundamental part of how the world works” and this is how most of us see many discoveries as “curious people looking for one thing and finding another.” But the authors are quick to aver that these fortuitous events are borne out of a skill called “planned serendipity”.

Some people call it luck, others call it more profoundly as serendipity. What’s the difference? A cursory look at the dictionary reveals luck is the chance happening of fortunate or adverse events; fortune, while serendipity is the faculty or phenomenon of making fortunate accidental discoveries; an aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident.

The main difference is that one can have bad luck, but not bad serendipity; and this is because the latter is more than people making fortunate discoveries accidentally — it entails a particular frame of mind, a laser-sharp focus and alertness because they are searching for something but they end up finding something else. The word came from “Serendip”, the name early Arabs called Sri Lanka; and later coined by English author Horace Walpole in 1754 from a fairy-tale “The Three Princes of Serendip.”

Science, business and mundane day-to-day life are replete with examples of serendipity at work. The most celebrated one is the serendipitous discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming who got a Nobel Prize when he noticed that a mold had contaminated his flu cultures, but the area around the mold was clear of infection. Others had gotten there before him, including young stable boys who used moldy bread to treat skin infections in horses, and who rubbed the mold that accumulated on saddles into their own skin to prevent saddle sores.

The discovery of Post-it note is another example. This is a small piece of paper with a strip of low-tack adhesive on the back that allows it to be temporarily attached to documents, walls, computer monitors and just about anything else. Post-it note was conceived in 1974 by Ar Fry as a way of holding bookmarks in his hymnal while singing in the church choir. He was aware of an adhesive accidentally developed in 1968 by fellow 3M employee Spencer Silver, which had no apparent application until Fry’s idea. The 3M company was initially skeptical about the product’s profitability, but in 1980, the product was introduced around the world until it reached mainstream consumers.

There are scores of examples of serendipity — from the microwave oven, to Kellogg cereals, to the World Wide Web, to the structure of the DNA. But these serendipitous discoveries have certain commonalities that lead to their uncovering.

One is deep understanding and prior knowledge. Fleming and Fry possessed the preparation, training and knowledge necessary to “connect the dots” when events occur. They were able to expound on an unexpected event using their sagacity, insight and intelligence.

Another component is the unwavering devotion, focus and awareness. They have all devoted years of their lives accumulating the necessary experience and aptitude in building knowledge about the subject matter. They have incessantly pushed the boundaries of discovery under fortunate events.

Lastly, the exposure to a network of experts, colleagues and varied situations is key. Fry wouldn’t have discovered Post-it if he didn’t have the “connection” to the research lab of 3M.

Serendipity is now a common theme among businesses and start-ups when we speak of creativity and innovation. Phrases such as “planned serendipity” and “engineered serendipity” have reached the business community to mean finding new products and innovations through a more concerted, focused and deliberate way though exposure to a wider network of experts and different situations.

Serendipity can likewise be applied to one’s personal life, may it be finding a dream job, starting a business, or meeting your lifelong partner. John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale starred in a movie called Serendipity, in which Beckinsale’s character relied on fortunate accidents, treating them as a sign of what should be, until both of them ended up with each other.

The movie example may be an exaggerated way of finding the love of your life, but one can find his or her dream job, vocation, and lasting relationship through the same elements as deep understanding, awareness, exposure to various situations and networks, and susceptiveness to one’s vulnerabilities.

Business or personal life, one can find either luck or serendipity, but the individual determines which one prevails.

The author is CEO of Hungry Workhorse Consulting, a digital and culture transformation firm. He teaches strategic management in the MBA Program of De La Salle University. The author may be emailed at