Monday, January 13, 2014

Mastering the Art of Coincidence

Coincidence is the word we use when we can't see the levers and pulleys. - Emma Bull

Choice, not chance, determines your destiny. – Aristotle (attributed)

A long time ago at the tender, naïve age of 17 and with my first post secondary education behind me (long story), I found myself working as an IT architect for a medium-sized, family-owned insurance company in Newfoundland.  The President and owner of the company was a man that this impressionable graduate looked up to (I almost wrote worshipped) for his discipline, focus, knowledge and wisdom and many of his personal practices, including Quiet Hour (the first hour of every day being reserved for planning and reflection), are things I still practice to this day. 

Fast forward many years to the early 2000’s ….

I had driven up to Providence, Rhode Island from the NYC area for a stamp collector expo and while there, I had the opportunity to buy a number of Newfoundland covers.  A cover is a common item created by stamp collectors whereby they mail an envelope to themselves with a stamp on it that is mailed on the day (and preferably from the location) that the stamp is issued.  The postal cancellation serves as  official identification of the date the stamp was issued.

When I got home, I held the covers up to the light and noted that each one had an index card inside it, a common practice to prevent the envelope from being bent as it journeys back to its sender.

However, one cover had no return address and seemed to have a letter in it.  I thought, “Hmmm … I only paid a dollar for this – why not?” and I carefully slit the envelope open to remove the letter.

It was a letter with investment advice that had been written in the early 1940’s to a woman in St. John’s, Newfoundland from a man who signed himself as “Art – The Insurance Man” (he signed his full name, I have changed it for privacy reasons).

This envelope wasn’t a cover. It was in fact a letter that had never been delivered.  Curious about the coincidence that the last name of the person who sent the letter and the man who had mentored me early in my career were the same, I contacted my mentor’s son and asked him, “Do you know of a guy by the name of Art in your family?”

“Yes”, he replied, “Art, the insurance man.  He was my grandfather.”

After the goose bumps had settled, he and I explored the letter. It turned out that it had been written by his grandfather, my mentor’s father, and I had stumbled upon it in another country “by coincidence” more than 60 years after it had been mailed.  Subsequent efforts to return it to my mentor resulted in him telling me that he was glad that I had found the letter and that he would appreciate it if I kept it.

Ohhhhh the odds

As a strategy guy who works with data, facts and predictable outcomes, I knew it would be impossible to calculate the odds of this letter making the journey that it did only to end up in the hands of the person who bought it.

And yet I can’t deny the reality as I see it in my collection today.

We are surrounded by coincidences … but ….

When I think of this letter, I am reminded that coincidences are a funny thing, often being dismissed as fate, God’s hand, serendipity, luck or a manifestation of quantum physics.

Even when our Life is filled with coincidences, we often shrug them off in a self-referential way, saying that all those coincidences are merely a coincidence.

The difficulty with this is that as we get older and we are honest with ourselves, we see that the best, the worst and the strangest things in our Life all arrived “by coincidence” even though they fit perfectly in our Life.

Of course they would fit perfectly – without them you would have taken another Path and be analyzing a different set of perfect coincidences. :-)

What I find fascinating about coincidences and unforeseen opportunity is that in my line of work as an objective observer, I often see people surrounded by them – a harvest of abundance waiting for someone to seize them.

However, they are so often so busy focused on creating their future as they define it that these coincidences flow by in a never-ending stream of unharnessed opportunity.

My theory

Based on many years of such observations, I have a theory.

I posit that coincidences are not magical or rare at all.

What is rare and magical are the people who see them, embrace them and run with them.

Coincidences are always perfectly timed.

But their potential is lost forever unless we bring them into reality with good timing and an openness (audacity, maybe?) to dare to embrace them.

And that, I believe, separates many (not all) of those who seem to live Lives of luck and success (however it is measured) and people who do not.

That’s not to say that we must over analyze everything.  Some things may happen for no apparent reason or for a reason that is not meant for us to know (at least for the moment) and so to over analyze everything is to move into a Life of execution paralysis.  However, too many people with the intention of not over analyzing things move to the other extreme and decide to examine nothing for more reasons than I care to get into here, leaving nuggets of gold to remain buried in the dust of Life or for someone else to discover.

I also posit something else.

I think that it is not a coincidence that you are reading this right now.

What do you think?

In service and servanthood,


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