Seeking Serendipity: Paying Attention to Beneficial Chance

Australian Army, New Zealand Army and United States Marine Corps personnel watch as ordnance is fired, July 18 2018. Australian Armed Forces photo by CPL Jake Sims

Look for something, find something else, and realize that what you’ve found is more suited to your needs than what you thought you were looking for – Lawrence Block

There is an aspect of serendipity that is critical to satisfaction in life after the military. “Serendipity” is one of those words that we kind of think we know what it means, but not really. The quote above gives an accurate definition: serendipity is finding something you weren’t looking for that has a positive outcome. It’s paying attention to the world around you. Being aware of what you want rather than seeking what you think you need.

There is often a sense of dissatisfaction in post-military life. Sometimes, this happens when a former service member simply carries on with what they did in the military. Not considering other options; that’s anti-serendipity. I work with many veterans who aren’t satisfied with their post-military jobs; some, because they took the first thing that came along that paid the bills. Others, because they were just going along with what they were already knew. The cook becomes a chef. The logistics manager runs a warehouse, the intelligence analyst becomes a government contractor, the leader becomes a corporate leadership trainer. And something is missing.

What’s missing is the disconnect between what we think we want to do and what we really want to do. Serendipity can be the link between the two. We only have to pay attention to what the universe is telling us.

We can’t force serendipity to happen. What we can do, though, is stop forcing service members down a pre-laid path. Recently, Google developed a search tool in which a veteran can put in the job they did in the military, and they would get non-military job recommendations. My colleague David Lee wrote an article about how they got it wrong: funneling service members down the same path they were on in the military.

In order for serendipity to work, we have to be aware of our own desires and inclination, which takes self-awareness. We have to develop that within ourselves. And, like many other things, research has shown how to make serendipity happen. An analysis of serendipitous events show that there are three things necessary for it to happen: a chance encounter, a prepared mind, and an act of noticing.

Serendipity Has to Happen by Chance

Serendipity is a chance encounter with something we weren’t looking for that turns out to be great. When I punch in my former occupational speciality in the Google MOS translator, I get a series of jobs that tells me I would be a good truck driver. I knew that’s not what I wanted to do, though. People often ask me how I became a mental health counselor; my answer to them is serendipity. I happened to be attending a post-deployment reintegration seminar, in which the person giving the class on relationships said, “By the way…anyone who is interested in psychology, consider a career in the mental health field after you get out of the military. There are not enough combat veterans in the industry.”

That statement is what led me down the path I’m currently on. It happened by chance; that statement wasn’t part of her class. I could have been in another group, or she could have not been a part of the whole seminar. I was one of a hundred or so folks in that room; to my knowledge, I was the only one who has become a therapist.

Even though we can’t force serendipity to happen, we have to be prepared for it. I did happen to be interested in psychology. Taking care of troops is what I did in the military; this is just an extension of that. I knew that I didn’t want to continue to do what I was doing, but wasn’t sure what it was that I wanted to do.

Serendipity Requires a Prepared Mind

When it comes to taking advantage of beneficial chance, we have to be open and ready for it. Our minds have to be in receive mode, listing to what we want in our hearts and what the world is presenting to us. This is one of the biggest problems that I see with taking advantage of serendipity; we have our head down, blinders on, focused only on the path in front of us and not even listening for other opportunities.

A prepared mind has two elements, according to the article linked above. First, there must be a prior concern. There has to be a need to be filled; a dissatisfaction with the way things are, or a problem to be solved. Second, there has to be previous experience or expertise. Not necessarily formal training, but familiarity with the subject. Both of these things require awareness; if we are not aware of the dissatisfaction, and we don’t have previous experience, then we’re not able to see opportunities that may be there. We may not be able to cause chance to happen, but we can improve our odds by preparing our mind.

Serendipity Requires An Act of Noticing

After having a prepared mind…knowing that I didn’t want to continue in logistics, and having the experience of leading and counseling soldiers…we have to notice the world around us. We can be as prepared as we want, but if we ignore stuff, then we’re not going to take advantage of serendipity. Noticing requires us to pay attention; again, if we’re walking the path blindly, the opportunities won’t even register in our minds.

Another problem to avoid is when we talk ourselves out of something. If I had heard that statement and was stuck in the doubt trap, I wouldn’t have taken advantage of it. “Me? A therapist? There’s no way I could do that.” We can get in our own way, and not get the beneficial effects of serendipity, if we ignore the signs that something else might be there for us.

How has a random chance encounter benefitted you or your family in your post-military life? I’d love to hear them. Drop me a line or comment below; more examples of beneficial chance can help other veterans and military family members prepare their mind, notice the opportunities, and take advantage of the serendipitous moments in our life.

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The Head Space and Timing Blog is supported by the Colorado Veterans Health and Wellness Agency, a 501(c)3 Nonprofit in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The goal of the CVHWA is to provide military culturally competent mental health counseling to veterans and their spouses, regardless of characterization of discharge, time of service, or era of service. Our vision is to assist veterans to identify and remove barriers to their mental, physical, emotional, and behavioral wellness. For questions or inquiries, contact us!

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Duane France
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Duane K. L. France is a combat veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as a mental health counselor practicing in the state of Colorado. Do you want to join the conversation regarding veteran mental health? Share, like, and comment. Read Duane's previous posts and follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn. Keep the conversation about #veteranmentalhealth going.