The Three Princes of Serendip; or, on internships

Mireille Stahle currently interns at Penguin Random House. She is a notorious eccentric from the western suburbs. When she’s not working for free, she’s working in marketing and communications for the Faculty of Fine Arts and Music, UoM. Her vices include reading, cross-stitch and reality TV.


“The seeds of great discoveries are constantly floating around us, but they only take root in minds well prepared to receive them.”

Joseph Henry, physicist and first director of The Smithsonian Institution

I was asked to write this article presumably because in the last two years, I have had the privilege of undertaking two internships at different publishing houses. The first in 2017, with Cambridge University Press, and the second this year at Penguin Random House. I use the word ‘privilege’ because truly it is a privilege to work for free. I had to make a lot of concessions in order to commit myself to two days of unpaid labour, but I would like to acknowledge the culture of privilege and elitism that internship programs can be a party to. Nonetheless, if like me you want to undertake an internship for academic credit, here’s some ruminations on how to get there and get the most out of your experience.

Are you familiar with the tale of the Three Princes of Serendip?[1] The story has become known in the English-speaking world as the source of the word serendipity, coined by Horace Walpole. It’s a fairy-tale about three princes who, by “accidents and sagacity”, discern the whereabouts of a lost camel. It’s become one of the defining tales of my career.

In my journey from student to internship to industry, I have trusted in the wisdom of the Princes of Serendip – or rather, made myself available for happy accidents, understanding that opportunities have many guises and as long as I’m moving, in any direction, I am making progress. Serendipity doesn’t leave itself to chance. Serendipity happens when you make polite conversation with the person ahead of you in the queue and they later remember you when they’re chairing an interview. Serendipity happens when you’re wearing a smart outfit on an off day and bump into your ex on the street. Is your resume always up to date? Do you smile at the barista even when he’s poured coffee down your front? What do you have that sets you apart? You’ve probably heard it a thousand times and you’ll hear it again: opportunity doesn’t ‘come knocking’ (for most, anyway). You need to make opportunities for yourself, by being pro-active, having flexibility and an open-mind.[2]

My favourite example of serendipity is beautifully illustrated by David R. Colman in an article on the mysterious phenomenon.[3] Alexander Fleming, suffering from a particularly juicy cold, (Colman’s words, not mine) happened to sneeze into a Petri dish full of bacteria. He absent-mindedly placed the dish on his cluttered desk. Some days later, as he was straightening his desk, he noticed to his great surprise that the bacteria in the dish had been destroyed. Curiosity aroused, he worked to isolate for the first time ‘lysozyme’, an antibacterial protein, and after further research, in 1928 discovered penicillin.

I’m not suggesting you should leave anything sneezy on your desk. But, I would recommend not walking around with your proverbial eyes shut to possibility.

I sought out my first internship position by contacting a careers counsellor at the university. It was not particularly strenuous. You can do it too! The reason why I was the best candidate for the position, however? The woman who interviewed me, the senior commissioning editor, remembered having been served by me at my retail job. For her, I was the obvious choice, not because I was necessarily the strongest candidate, but by way of serendipity she knew my face and my work ethic. The situation would have been different if I didn’t take my then job seriously. Regardless of whether you’re in your dream career, working a cash-in-hand summer job, work for yourself, or volunteer; whatever it is that you’re doing, commit to doing it 100 percent. Because you never know – you might end up chasing a camel and finding a pot of gold.

The work at Cambridge? It wasn’t glamorous, fun or cool. But nonetheless I committed myself to doing the best job that I could, I made myself polite and approachable, I was unequivocally myself and was always on time. When I finished my work for the day, I asked for more. Often internship supervisors don’t have time to create an exciting, diverse program of activities for you day in day out so if you’re not getting enough challenging work, don’t be afraid to ask for it. Nobody was ever struck down by lightening for asking someone when they needed help and vice versa: you’ll make someone’s day if you ask what you can do to help them. One day I didn’t even have enough money to get the bus home. On more than one occasion I had to go without food. But when it came time to interview for a position I really wanted, I had all the experience and references any employer’s heart could desire. I was able to walk away with friends, mentors and a glowing reference that alluded to my perseverance, commitment and willingness to learn. Academic publishing is probably not my calling in life, but as a learning opportunity, I cannot fault my experience.

You don’t reach Serendip by plotting a course for it. You have to set out in good faith for elsewhere and lose your bearings serendipitously. But if you don’t set out for anywhere, you’ll never get to where you’re destined to be going.


END NOTES:

[1] The Three Princes of Serendip is the English version of the story Peregrinaggio di tre giovani figliuoli del re di Serendippo published by Michele Tramezzino in Venice in 1557. Tramezzino claimed to have heard the story from one Cristoforo Armeno, who had translated the Persian fairy tale into Italian, adapting Book One of Amir Khusrau’s Hasht-Bihisht of 1302

[2] I would like to reiterate that this statement is couched in my experience of privilege as an able-bodied, white woman, and acknowledge the structural barriers that exist and are perpetuated for people of colour, First-Nations, non-binary, QPOC, LBTQI+ and other persons who experience oppression.

[3] Colman, D. R. (2006). The three princes of Serendip: Notes on a mysterious phenomenon. McGill Journal of Medicine : MJM9(2), 161–163.

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