Embracing Serendipity Is the Secret to Surviving Back-to-School This Year. Here’s How

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“One of the most fundamental yet under-appreciated truths of human existence…is this: everyone is totally just winging it, all the time.” —British journalist Oliver Burkeman

Almost every working parent feels out of control at times in their life, particularly with the uncertainty of back-to-school schedules this fall. The prospect of the unknown seems to bring along with it the potential for chaos and calamity. For working parents who are feeling stressed and overwhelmed with dual responsibilities, developing “a serendipity mindset” is exactly the life hack you need to turn uncertainty from a threat into an ally and help create a more manageable, balanced and sustainable life.

Perhaps you have a special needs child and you have no idea how to support his distance learning needs with little to no support from their school. Or you are struggling to portray a calm, in-control parent when you’re juggling your kids’ Zoom meetings and yours, and oh yeah, making lunch, much less dinner, happen seamlessly. A well-toned serendipity muscle will help ensure you have the confidence and the tools you’ll need as part of your own back-to-school supplies so that you’re not only surviving the year ahead, but thriving.

It’s a human tendency to try to control everything (as working parents know better than anyone, plans are as essential as breathing), but particularly in times of uncertainty, there are many things that we can’t manage. Instead of pretending that we have it all figured out, and possibly missing opportunities that lie hidden in the unexpected, cultivating serendipity is about gaining control over uncertainty. This subtle but important mind shift puts our fear and anxiety into meaningful use and helps us to navigate the unknown in a hopeful way—by building a muscle for the unexpected to help guide us to more positive outcomes.

Here are some tangible changes that can help put a serendipity mindset to work for you:

Rely on the Home Team

Our tendency in times of crisis is to focus on the negative, and on the things that we don’t have to deal with changes. A big part of adopting a serendipity mindset is to accept the world’s imperfections as an opportunity to seek out how to make the best of what’s at hand because that’s where the most creative (and serendipitous) solutions emerge.

For those parents with older children, this means making sure that they are doing their fair share to ease the family load through chores, while learning valuable life skills and a sense of responsibility. Perhaps they can collaborate to plan and execute a family meal each week, do their own laundry (cycle, fold and distribute), or even mind or tutor younger siblings. And if this practice has already been institutionalized, what other ways can they help around the house in ways that might seem “adult” but for which they might be surprisingly capable? We often underestimate what children are capable of, and how
much they want to grow in their responsibilities.

Raise Your Hand to Ask for Help

According to Best Buy’s chairman Hubert Joly, the ability and willingness to ask for help is at the core of navigating today’s fast-changing world. Of course, this goes against many of our instincts, and most particularly for working parents: A natural instinct is to go it alone, divert blame, look good in front of others and agree to be agreeable.

Recent studies have shown that admitting small weaknesses or even volunteering them can be highly productive. One study focused on groups of people in brainstorming sessions. The researchers found that if members begin by telling the group an embarrassing story about themselves, the group ended up being far more productive. In fact, groups that started their brainstorming by opening up to each other, even in a small way, generated 26 percent more ideas.

As daunting as this might feel, try to apply this at home. Be honest about the challenges and ways you are struggling. Chances are, family members will feel the same. See how you can help one another and you might be surprised by insights your children can provide to help make your own working from home issues more manageable.

Factor in Family Time

In a physically distanced world, when we’re all feeling disconnected from friends and other family members, building in time for family is vitally important. Try introducing processes and rituals into the day where family members can each share highlights (and moments of panic) from their day and what we learned from them, whether it’s through an outdoor hike, family “happy hour” before dinner or a family work out. For example, questions like “What surprised you/changed your mind today?” or “Name one unexpected thing you learned about?” are ways to trigger meaningful conversation and “aha” moments around the unexpected as a source of joy rather than something to be feared. At the same time, these rituals help to remind us of the essence of life, among them being the importance of family connection.

At a time when just getting through the day can seem overwhelming for working families, adopting a serendipity mindset as your guiding North Star is a great way to ease anxiety, and prepare to thrive, not just survive, no matter what the coming school year brings.


Dr. Christian Busch, Ph.D., is a professor at New York University (NYU), where he directs the CGA Global Economy Program and teaches on purpose-driven leadership, innovation and entrepreneurship. He is a Visiting Fellow at the Marshall Center, London School of Economics (LSE). He is the author of The Serendipity Mindset: The Art and Science of Good Luck. More on his recent work can be found on his website or on Twitter.



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