Serendipity and the E in Me

Posted on October 20, 2012


I love serendipity. I love it as a word. I love it as a concept. Most of all I love it as a way of living life. For the uninformed (and bizarrely it wasn’t a word I’d really come across until I first saw the film of the same name) the definitions are:

1. The faculty of making fortunate discoveries by accident.
2. The fact or occurrence of such discoveries.
3. An instance of making such a discovery.

I even love that serendipity refers simultaneously to the faculty, fact and instance of serendipitousness (a word that I hope is made up, but would be ecstatic if it proved to be real).

The coinage of the word by Horace Walpole in the C18 came about because of his knowledge of a Persian fairy tale called The Three Princes of Serendip which can be found here.

To get you started my favourite quote, about how the princes have decided to travel as common men, is this:

They found that by travelling in this manner they found much hardship and human suffering along the way.

But they also discovered, quite unexpectedly, great and wonderful good in the most unlikely of situations, places and people.

Now if ever there was an apt description of life (certainly as I have experienced it) then this is it, and it certainly dovetails beautifully with the whole Daily Genius thing I have blogged about before.

But the point of this post isn’t to talk about serendipity in the broadest sense but to share with you the example of it in my life that most changed who I am and how I am: the story of how I came to be Keven, not Kevin. Or more importantly the story of how I came to be happy in my own skin.

I’m not going to labour the point but I was an unhappy teenager for the generic reasons (hormones, hormones, hormones) as well as for the specific ones (dead brother, bullying, poverty) and I am an extremely happy adult (I was once told that I smile too much by a particularly Eeyore-ish member of staff) for so many reasons, including some the same as the ones that made me sad as a teenager.

The (literally) pivotal moment of my life was in fact a year, my first year of university. And what a year. Cathartic in both non-medical meanings of the word.

1. A purifying or figurative cleansing of the emotions, especially pity and fear, described by Aristotle as an effect of tragic drama on its audience.
2. A release of emotional tension, as after an overwhelming experience, that restores or refreshes the spirit.

In that year I failed university (spectacularly, as I was the first ever student at my college to have already failed before I sat an exam), built up a debt comparable to a small African nation, stood against Stephen Twigg for NUS national president, almost destroyed the emotional bonds with the only two people who had always been there for me and consumed an Atlantic Oceansworth of cheap Student Union alcohol. If I’m being hyperbolic about it, it was because it was a hyperbolic year in my life.

The one thing that remained constant in this time was my passion for journalism. I was determined to become an internationally renowned features hack and took every spare moment to contribute to whatever publication would have my work. I wrote prolifically for non-academic purposes even as I studiously avoided the academic work that would have helped my mission. And then serendipity called in the form of a request from the Guardian to write an article for a Freshers’ Week features pullout. Finally I thought I had made it. I penned what I then thought was a work of genius (one should never hang on to earnestly written late-teen rants for too long), dispatched it well before the deadline and waited for it to be published in The Guardian!!!!

But anybody who knows anything about the Grauniad knows that it has a reputation for a degree of looseness in its spelling, and when the day came I was annoyed to find that the reputation was indeed well-founded: they had spelled my name Keven. That annoyance didn’t get in the way of me sending copies to all and sundry or to calling all my friends to tell them to buy a copy, but it was there. I remained annoyed until I started getting the calls and comments back from friends that the misspelling on the byline was effective because of its slight deviation from the norm. Apparently it made my once comedy name (Kevin the Gerbil was a constant menace of a moniker in my unhappy youth) something somewhat mysterious, intriguing and professional-sounding. And so Keven Bartle, the journalist, was born. Every piece I wrote from that moment forward was written by Keven, not Kevin, and each time I used it I made an imperceptible increment in my confidence in myself as someone worth listening to; a confidence i had last felt as an 11 year old.

During that time I sent every piece of journalism back to my mum, and serendipity contrived to make her decide one day, on a birthday card I think, to address me as Keven. I had never asked for it and never expected it. The confident Keven of my journalism and the still cowering Kevin of my real life were at that time still separate entities, but in one fell swoop they were made to merge and confident Keven, the journalist and human being, was born. And here I still remain.

So serendipity renamed me and, to my mind, so serendipity changed me. I sorted myself out after that disastrous first year of University, repaired the damage I had caused to myself and others, and found something close to balance in life. Happiness has flowed ever since, even when times have been bad, perhaps especially when times have been bad.

These days I try to submit to serendipity whenever I can. Serendipity decided to block my path to journalism and reveal a path to teaching; a career in which I have found tremendous satisfaction, happiness and fulfilment. Serendipity brought me to London when all my plans and prejudices told me to stay up north. Serendipity has offered me jobs I didn’t want that have turned out to be the most rewarding of my career. Serendipity also dictates this blog, as I let ideas come to me rather than go hunting for them. In fact the genesis of this post came from a new twitter friend asking me about my name (the first person on the normally-curious twitter to so so).

Don’t get me wrong about this. I’m not fatalistic about life, and serendipity is a far more life-enhancing thing to give yourself up to than fate. I still think people should be active in planning for and pursuing success and happiness, but when life offers up something unexpected perhaps we should treat it as a gift and give ourselves up to swirling whims of serendipity.

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