Often, when I visit schools and libraries to speak to youngsters, I tell the story of Rene Laennec. The story is a guaranteed attention-getter and high on the oddball scale so kids love it. But I love the story too, because I get to ham it up with a demonstration that calls for volunteers, all the while marveling at the freaky role chance plays in so much of what we do.
In 1816, Rene Laennec, a French doctor, was called to a sick patient’s home. As he walked the streets of Paris, he pondered a problem. His patient, a woman with heart disease, was obese and Laennec worried that he might not be able to hear her heart beating.
Along one street, the laughter of children playing a game with a pile of lumber interrupted Laennec’s thoughts. The game was simple. One child pressed an ear against one end of a long wooden beam. Another child tapped the other end to send a message. Magnified by the density of the wood, the sound travelled through the board, sending the children into fits of laughter.
Laennec watched the game, his problem forgotten for the moment. But as he walked to the patient’s home, an idea simmered. By the time he reached his destination, he had a solution. He rolled a sheet of paper into a tube. When he pressed one end of the tube against his patient’s chest and listened at the other end, he clearly heard the movements of her heart.
For Laennec, it was just the beginning. He experimented with different materials for his listening device. Being an expert wood turner, he produced a cylinder of wood about thirty centimetres long. Hollow in the center with adjustable cups at either end, it was the prototype to the instrument every doctor and nurse uses today – the stethoscope.
I share Laennec’s story with young audiences to illustrate the kind of non-fiction writing I do – the narrative variety where the goal is to captivate readers with a true story. But I also tell the story of the stethoscope with a second purpose in mind, and to do that I add a little something else – a follow-up story that is tied to the first.
I tell audiences how I stumbled upon the Laennec story while searching for information about something else, how it twigged my interest in a totally new subject, and how it led to my first book, The Serendipity Effect, a collection of short stories about mistakes, accidents and freakish occurrences in science.
And that, I tell youngsters, is how chance works. Whether you are a doctor, scientist, teacher, electrician or writer (maybe especially writers), ideas are everywhere, free for the taking, free for you to adapt, mold and use in other ways. What seems like a coincidence or chance occurrence might be opportunity knocking, begging to be let in. The question is: Will you open the door to the unexpected when it happens? Not everyone will.
Louis Pasteur, who developed the first vaccine after a mishap in the lab steered him in a new direction, knew a thing or two about this. “Chance favours the prepared mind,” is his oft repeated quote. To harvest chance, you’d have to first recognize it as an opportunity. You need a certain mindset, a working framework to begin with. Laennec was pondering a problem when he spotted children at play. I was looking for a subject when I stumbled upon the Laennec story. Both of us were actively pursuing something. In a sense, we were preparing ourselves to recognize chance when it happened.
Maybe for writers, especially those struggling with writer’s block, the lesson might be this: Don’t sit there, waiting for a thunderbolt of inspiration. Get involved. Dig deep. Get busy. Do something. Till the soil so when seeds of opportunity land, they have a place to grow.