Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Succouring Serendipity

Don’t you love it when life seems to smile upon you and unexpected events and outcomes provide pleasant opportunities and experiences?  As is often said “Serendipity is a wonderful thing”, but we have strayed slightly from the word’s original meaning.  The first noted use of “Serendipity” in the English language was by Horace Walpole in a letter to the American educational reformer, Horace Mann, in which he states that he formed the word from the Persian fairy tale “The Three Princes of Serendip” whose heroes

“were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of”.

The name stems from Serendip, an old name for Ceylon (now called Sri Lanka) and literally translates as “Dwelling-Place-of-Lions Island”.  According to Walpole’s definition, Serendipity is not pure fortuitous chance – it also requires a person to spot an opportunity and, through their wisdom as well as happenstance, to enable success or a pleasant outcome.

In January 2007, after gale force winds and severe waves damaged her hull, flooding the engine room, the MSC Napoli was deliberately grounded in Lyme Bay off the south coast of Britain; the weather conditions and list of the ship being too extreme to tow her to a suitable port.  Her twenty six man crew was rescued and the Napoli was left to the mercy of the elements.  The storms continued and the ship began to break up, relinquishing her cargo into the waves.  Some of the Napoli’s load was washed ashore at Branscombe. Local people rushed to the beach to scavenge the flotsam.  The cargo consisted of goods bound for Africa, including Allier oak barrels on their way to South Africa for aging some of the finest wines.  These barrels were packed with a consignment of Zulu bibles into containers and hence were protected from the sea water and floated to the beach undamaged and untainted.  Julian Temperley, the founder of the Somerset Cider Brandy Company, saw the barrels drifting shore-wards in television news pictures and, spotting a possible opportunity, travelled to the beach.  With permission from the Receiver of Wrecks the shipwrecked barrels were salvaged and now have been used to mature a Single Cask Ten Year Old Cider Brandy, named “Shipwreck”. 

I had the pleasure of celebrating Apple Day last Saturday at Burrow Hill, the home of Somerset Cider Brandy.  I sipped Shipwreck under the apple trees and pondered how fortuitous it was that Julian had spotted the opportunity.  Shipwreck is fantastic, with the potent apple spirit smoothed by the oak of the barrels into a subtle and evocative drink.  Apple Day, contrary to its sound, is not a memorial to Steve Jobs and his products, although he was mentioned on Saturday, but a glorious celebration of the variety and richness around us, initiated by the conservation group Common Ground.  A primary driver behind Apple Day is the opportunity to enjoy local seasonal produce and to celebrate some of the unique foodstuffs available in certain areas.  In linking particular apples with their place of origin, Common Ground hoped that orchards they came from would be recognised and conserved for their contribution to local distinctiveness, including the rich diversity of wildlife they support.  Common Ground used the symbol of the apple to indicate the physical, cultural and genetic diversity that we should not allow to be lost in our age of standardization and mass production. 

I believe that we should apply a similar approach to our commercial concerns.  We all have access to the same IT systems, data and infrastructure.  It is what we, the people in a business, do with the information available to us and how we behave (both individually and as teams) that makes the difference.  In these challenging economic times, it is those of us who can operate more efficiently, collaboratively or in a manner that makes us stand out from the crowd that will be ensure success.  Organisations need to ensure customer loyalty and satisfaction by offering unique, outstanding and valued skills or products. Don’t succumb to the temptation simply to follow the heard – although you might blend into the surroundings, you won’t be exceptional and bland mediocrity, perpetuating the mistakes of the past is unlikely to result in long-term, sustainable success.  Organisations and the individuals in them need the drive to succeed and the vision, skills, resilience and tenacity to thrive and adapt as circumstances require.
Returning to where I started, with Serendipity in the land of lions, I would like to close with some thoughts on Dr. David Livingstone, the legendary nineteenth century explorer.  Many people know that he had a famous encounter with a lion during his early days as a medical missionary in Kolobeng in South Africa.  It crunched his left arm (indeed it was the mangled and misshapen mend of this fracture that enabled identification of his body, when it was brought back to the UK).  What is not so generally known is that his life was saved following the attack, partially by Mebalwe, a local African whom Livingstone himself had prepared and trained to be able to cope in such a situation, and partially as a result of necessary medication, specifically paid for by a Scottish benefactress. It could be claimed that she, by preserving Livingstone’s life and making it possible for him to remain in Africa for a further thirty years, should be credited with enabling the celebrated Victorian medical missionary and anti-slavery champion to achieve all he did.  However, it is easier to argue that Livingstone, once recovered, made his own good fortune in Africa.  It is noteworthy that Livingstone did not conduct himself in a manner similar to most other explorers and missionaries of the time – he travelled light, without soldiers and support, and hence was not viewed as a threat by the chiefs in the areas through which he travelled.  It was only when funded to oversee significant manned-expeditions, and hence expected by his sponsors to be accompanied by swathes of retinue, that some of his explorations foundered.  Dr. Livingstone was most successful relying on his own skills, approach and abilities.  He was self-aware and appreciated the attributes required to be exceptional in his field.  His is an amazing rags-to-riches story of dedication and perseverance.  His famous words “I am prepared to go anywhere, provided it be forward” should be an inspiration to us all.     

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