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Caring & Giving
What We Can All Learn From Intentional Serendipity
Photo Credit: SwitchPoint

*This post originally appeared on intrahealth.org.

IntraHealth International is a nongovernmental organization (NGO) dedicated to improving health care in developing countries through strengthening health workers and the systems that support them. IntraHealth primarily addresses health workforce and systems strengthening; family planning and reproductive health; HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis; maternal, newborn, and child health; and malaria. IntraHealth hosts an annual conference, SwitchPoint, which focuses on great ideas, tools, and people making a real difference in the world in areas such as humanitarian innovation, global health, and technology.

On my way home from SwitchPoint 2016, I reflected on intentional serendipity—an overarching theme that emerged from an event where hundreds of passionate humanitarians came to connect. This idea has bubbled up over the past few years in TED Talks and scholarly journals, and intentional serendipity took center stage at IntraHealth International’s 5th annual SwitchPoint.

On my way to the conference on Wednesday, I was preparing for my role as co-facilitator of the Innovators Forum, a pre-conference event where all of the speakers gathered to get to know each other and to prepare for the rich experience to come on Thursday and Friday. Just before I departed, my wife had shared an interesting article on luck and gratitude from The Chronicle of Higher Education. In short, the author of the article examines the role of luck in our lives and argues that the more we reflect on serendipitous moments and recognize the role of chance, the more we will be grateful for what we have received. Further, the more we reflect upon and discuss our luck and gratitude with others, the more people around us will reflect on their own luck. The result is akin to a viral impulse to give back and think more about the common good.

I decided to use this idea for the opening segment of our three-hour session, inviting each speaker to share an example of a serendipitous moment from their lives for which they are grateful. As each person shared his or her story—a fortuitous chance meeting or a random series of events—the positive energy increased. Certain themes emerged: key individuals who intervened; a tragic situation that led to a miraculous recovery; and chance encounters that became pivot points.

A dancer shared a story of how a serious injury halted her career and changed her life; a biologist shared how a bad job market, a grueling interview, and a well-timed piece of advice from a colleague to hold off on sending a letter led to a fulfilling career in global health; and an entrepreneur shared how getting a signed photograph of Diane Sawyer in response to a serious letter of complaint about her coverage fueled him as a young man to change the way we portray –and do—development.

The stories were so rich and nuanced that we spent almost the entire time listening to each other’s narratives. The collateral benefit of this sharing was the development of personal connections that led to deeper conversations over the next two days.

Studies have proven that the more we reflect on the good things that have happened to us—i.e., how lucky we are—the more likely we are to reinvest our gratitude in the common good. What I witnessed last Wednesday was a group of amazing global humanitarians enthusiastically sharing their gratitude for their “lucky breaks” and reinvesting their fortunes with those in need. It was obvious that my SwitchPoint colleagues had spent their lives preparing for the luck that ultimately found them.

Among the many great returns from my participation in SwitchPoint are, of course, new friends and inspiration. My colleagues at SwitchPoint echo Seneca the Younger who is quoted as saying, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” I also learned that luck is a common human denominator and that lucky circumstances with a dose of intentionality can make us more caring and effective in our work. For this and SwitchPoint, I am grateful.

As an Executive Director of Corporate Contributions at Johnson & Johnson, Michael Bzdak leads our philanthropic work focused on strengthening the health care workforce as well as our program evaluation strategies.