After a conversation with a delightful stranger, I shared the experience on Facebook saying, “Oh, I love serendipity.” After I’d posted, I began to wonder if calling it serendipity was accurate.

While the common understanding of serendipity defines it as unexpected good fortune, it goes further than that. In The World of Serendipity, author Marcus Bach explains why some people enjoy a large measure of unexpected good while others rarely have such experiences.

He writes, “Once upon a time, there lived an Englishman named Horace Walpole. He was best known for his passion for writing letters. For most of his life, he kept the postman busy lugging mail away from his home.

“On one occasion, Walpole wrote that an old Persian fairy tale had made a deep impression on him. The tale had to do with The Princes of Serendip. These three young noblemen, traveling the world, rarely found the treasures they were looking for, but continually ran into other treasures equally great or even greater than the ones they were seeking.

“Even though their goals eluded them, they were more than rewarded with their wayside discoveries, and soon it was as if an unseen power and guidance seemed to know better than they knew what was best for them.”

Therein lies the key to serendipity. It does not occur when we are passively waiting for something you happen. We must be actively engaged in the pursuit of some goal and, yet, be willing for it to turn out differently than imagined.

I’m reminded of a woman who called and excitedly announced, “I had the best time today being Joyfully Jobless!” She told me about some new people she’d met and discoveries she’d made for her business.  A year and a half earlier, this same woman was feeling hurt when she was dismissed from her job with a large corporation.

Would this enthusiastic conversation have happened if she was still punching a time clock?

Letting go of situations, relationships and belongings that have outlived their usefulness is also important if we are to experience grander possibilities for ourselves.

Marcus Bach explains, “This is one of the deep secrets of serendipity. While serendipity means finding joy and meaning in discoveries on the way to a stated goal, the secret is to look upon incidental goals as substantial and upon accidental happenings as purposeful.”

Make room for unexpected good fortune in the weeks and months ahead. If you do, you’ll find yourself greeting each day with an enthusiasm and anticipation you never had before.

Did I mention that enthusiasm and anticipation are magnets for serendipity?

Blogs and ezines have been filled with messages urging us to get those goals and plans set for the new year. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course.

Not only is goal-setting a popular tool for gaining focus and clarity, it’s also a fine time management tool.

Far fewer writers have been recommending that we incorporate serendipity into our plans. That’s not surprising since the popular definition of this word suggests that it means a happy accident, something unexpected.

That seems contrary to the Get Focused on Concrete Goals advice.

However, as I learned from Marcus Bach’s The World of Serendipity, there’s more to it than that. As Bach points out, the word originated with a story by Hugh Walpole written in 1754 and called The Princes of Serendip.

This tale featured three young noblemen who traveled the world, rarely finding the treasures they were looking for. Nevertheless, they continually ran into other treasures equally great or even greater which they were not seeking.

In looking for one thing, they found something else. “Even though their goals eluded them,” writes Bach, “they were more than rewarded with their wayside discoveries.”

What Walpole was writing about goes well beyond the occasional happy surprises. The key to having regular experiences of serendipity does not occur if we’re sitting on our sofa wishing something exciting—a windfall, a new opportunity, perhaps—would drop into our laps.

Serendipity happens when we’re on our way to a dream, actively engaged in doing what we can to bring it to life. Along the way, we may discover something bigger and better comes to us, something that more than compensates for our failure to reach the original goal.

Marcus Bach shares how serendipity has played a role in his writing career. He says that  he always sends out a new manuscript with high expectations.

“But every once in a while a manuscript comes back. It is then that my faith in serendipity comes in. I affirm that though I did not reach the initial goal, there will be a wayside goal just as good, or better, waiting for me.

“In some twenty-five years of writing, every manuscript of mine that was rejected eventually turned out advantageously for me. Either I improved it, profited from the rejection, placed it elsewhere, adapted it for radio or television.

“I can only conclude that if things work this way with manuscripts, they work this way with life if we are sincerely serendipitous and hold to great expectations.”

So by all means keep designing new quests and see where they lead, but stay alert to all the unexpected rewards of the journey.

Justice Cardozo concurs. “Like many of the finest things in life, like happiness and tranquility and fame, the gain that is most precious is not the thing sought, but one that comes of itself in the search for something else.”

Sounds like a paradox, I know, but that just adds to the fun.

Have you noticed?