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‘Serendipity’: Local author offers ideas for making meaning from the mundane

Dr. Neil Farber, a UCSD professor emeritus, offers tips in his new book on turning ordinary events into something meaningful.
Dr. Neil Farber, a UC San Diego professor emeritus, offers tips in his new book on turning ordinary events into something meaningful.
(Courtesy)

UC San Diego professor emeritus Dr. Neil Farber says we can use ordinary unexpected experiences to enhance our lives if we know where to look.

Dr. Neil Farber, a professor emeritus of clinical medicine at UC San Diego, says we can use common experiences to enhance our lives if we know where to look, and he’s written a book to encourage it.

“Serendipity: Utilizing Everyday Unexpected Events to Improve Your Life and Career,” published last month, is about taking ordinary events and making them meaningful, Farber said.

“There are unexpected events that are happening to all of us all the time,” he said. “You need to be able to recognize them and take advantage of them to make them profitable, meaningful, have something both important for your life and society in general.”

Farber, who moved to San Diego 14 years ago from Philadelphia and was a professor of clinical medicine at UCSD until his retirement in 2019, said he had always been conscious of serendipitous events in his own life.

Serendipity, he said, is different from luck in that a person “has to take action.” For example, Farber said, luck is receiving a check in the mail from a family member for $5,000; serendipity is finding a rare coin on the ground and taking the initiative to research and sell it for $5,000.

“It’s those kinds of events that are talked about in the book. Most of the events that I described in the book are events that actually occurred to me,” he said.

"Serendipity" offers historical events and author Neil Farber's life experiences as examples.
“Serendipity: Using Everyday Unexpected Events to Improve Your Life and Career” offers historical events and author Neil Farber’s life experiences as examples.
(Courtesy)

Farber also uses historical events “to flesh the book out,” like when Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin after returning from vacation and finding a green mold contaminating his Petri dishes. “You can imagine if Fleming had just … thrown out the dishes,” Farber said. “We would have no antibiotics.”

He said it’s important to recognize the potential of these ordinary events “because otherwise they just pass you by.”

Recognizing them follows the development of the following skills, he said:

• Mindfulness, or being “thoughtful that these events are happening and be open to the possibility that this is important.”

• Observation and curiosity. “That leads people to explore the thing that is occurring.”

• Making connections between experiences and knowledge.

“You need to have the wherewithal to do it, to connect with others who have the expertise,” Farber said, noting that Buffalo wings were created after a chef in Buffalo, N.Y., was looking to cook a late-night snack for her son and his friends with only chicken wings and hot sauce on hand.

Farber’s book contains tips to cultivate those skills.

Farber said the impetus to write the book came after 40 years as an academic physician. “I had done mainly survey research, looking at patient communication and medical ethics,” he said. “I had written over 60 medical articles.”

Along the way, he said, he became more and more aware of the serendipitous events in his life. “Two years ago, I awoke and I knew instantly what book I had to write.”

It took about eight months to finish the book, going “back into my recollection of how these events occurred. [I] wrote them down and thought, ‘How can I convey this to someone else?’”

In the process, the number of events in Farber’s life “surprised me. I thought, ‘Wow, this is really happening all the time to me.’ As I asked family and friends about it, they all chimed in” with serendipitous events in their lives. “It made me realize that this kind of thing was happening all the time,” he said.

“I thought the message was an important one to share with people,” Farber said.

“Serendipity” is available for $15.99 at bit.ly/serendipityfarber.