How often do you allow serendipity in your life?

Today is January 5 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “How often do you allow serendipity in your life?” Serendipity is defined as the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way. To further investigate the impact of serendipity on success, researchers continue to assess the role of chance events in personal and professional development. In their 1996 article "The Categorization of Serendipitous Career Development Events," published in the Journal of Career Assessment, Deborah G. Betsworth and Jo-Ida C. Hansen asked 237 older adults if their careers were influenced by serendipitous events. The results indicated that 63 percent of the men and 57 percent of the women felt that their careers were influenced by serendipitous events.


Researchers say that serendipity can be used to one’s advantage if individuals develop skills to recognize, create and use these chance occurrences as they think about their careers. Critical attributes for taking advantage of serendipitous events are curiosity, persistence, flexibility, optimism, and risk-taking. The backstory of Luis Echegoyen illustrates the role of serendipity in one’s professional development. Echegoyen has held influential positions at major universities and the National Science Foundation, published extensively, and won national and international recognition for his work. But in a career that spans nearly 40 years, there has been one surprisingly consistent theme: serendipity.


When Echegoyen spoke to a small group of 30 scientists and at a Summer Leadership Institute of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science in Washington, D.C., it was plain that he did not see serendipity as something light and whimsical. And he clearly was not talking about blind luck. Instead, he was talking about how scientists can structure their careers—and their lives—so that good but unplanned opportunities are more likely to emerge. “Serendipity is not strange,” he said. “It’s the norm. It is like mutations-it is happening all the time. Of course, you cannot go through life thinking, ‘Maybe something good will happen tomorrow.’ You should have a plan [but] be aware of the limits of planning-I cannot stress that enough. The more you connect, the more people you know, and the more diverse their backgrounds are, the better chance you have of something you did not anticipate happening.” Maria Belón allowed serendipity in her life and, as a result, something happened that she never anticipated or planned.


One day in 2007 Belón was on the radio telling the story of how she and her family miraculously survived the Indian Ocean tsunami three years earlier. In a moment of cinematic serendipity movie producer Belén Atienza was driving on a highway in Barcelona when the program aired. She pulled over to listen, then abandoned her Christmas shopping for the day. “I was obsessed with this mother that was in this situation where she couldn’t afford to die,” said Atienza. “I was a recent mother at the time, and I was thinking, ‘What would I do? If I die, he would be alone.’ That’s how (in the film) Maria felt when she spots the head of Lucas (Maria’s son) out of the water. She has to live.”

As a result of that day, the Belón and Atienza forged a connection. It would take five years, but finally, they brought the family’s story to the screen in the 2012 film The Impossible starring Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor. While serendipity bonded Belón and Atienza it completed altered the life and career of Nigerian American forensic pathologist Bennet Ifeakandu Omalu.


Omalu was working as the Allegheny County Coroner’s neuropathologist when he conducted an autopsy of former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster in 2002. Webster is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, class of 1997. Nicknamed "Iron Mike", Webster anchored the Steelers' offensive line during much of their run of four Super Bowl victories from 1974 to 1979 and is considered by many as the greatest center in NFL history. After retirement, Webster had amnesia, dementia, depression, and acute bone and muscular pain. He lived out of his pickup truck even though his friends and former teammates offered to rent apartments for him. Webster would die of a heart attack at age 50. Serendipity intervened and Omalu was charged with conducting Webster’s autopsy. Omalu wondered how Webster, someone so beloved and accomplished could wind up homeless, depressed, and distraught.

Omalu's autopsy led to an awareness of a neurologic condition associated with chronic head trauma called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, previously described in boxers and other professional athletes. Omalu conducted autopsies on several former NFL players and repeatedly found evidence of CTE. He found himself in completely new territory spending several years trying to convince the scientific community and the NFL of the significance of his findings. The NFL did not publicly acknowledge the link between concussions sustained in football and long-term neurological effects until December 2009, seven years after Omalu's discovery. However, as late as 2013, the annual meeting of the American Academy of Clinical Neuropsychology (AACN) included a debate between two sports concussion experts regarding the validity (or existence) of CTE.


Finally, in March 2016, the NFL's senior vice president for health and safety policy, Jeff Miller, testified before congress that the NFL now believed that there was a link between football and CTE. In 2016, the American Medical Association awarded Omalu with their highest honor, the Distinguished Service Award, for his work on CTE. Omalu is the central character portrayed by Will Smith in the 2015 film Concussion.