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Thanks to serendipity

Given my job at this university, you might be forgiven for thinking that I have had an intentional and a planned life and career, although in reality, it was far from this. In thinking about the paths that our students will take into their unknown futures, I considered my own path from undergraduate student to becoming their dean. This is supposed to be a blog, and not the great Canadian novel, so I’m going to have to serve up the abridged version about how a former tenant organizer, tractor driver, and musician finds himself as dean of a leading Arts faculty.

This story should probably start when I dropped out of college. I was a forestry major at the University of Wisconsin, but had transferred into landscape architecture. Increasingly I found myself too energized to sit in class, too concerned about the state of the world to put off my interventions in it, and more and more in love with music and its ability to move people. And so I dropped out of school, determined to travel, devote myself to community organizing (I became the director of a statewide tenant’s union), kayaking, and most of all, music, which was now clearly an overriding passion. I joined a traditional and Irish rebel music with a band, launched a world music radio show on community radio, and started to organize festivals. After the unexpected death of my sister, I felt the need to regroup, I found myself working as a tractor driver and foreman of an apple orchard in New England. But a life of apple harvests wasn’t in my future either, because in tipping an apple bin one day, my back exploded in pain and I found myself incapable of physical labor or even of sitting for any length of time for some years until back surgery corrected the problem.

What was I to do as an ex tractor driver and tenant organizer with a bad back? First I tried selling Time Life Books. Let me describe the scene: I sat in a room full of telesales people with a call list and a script for selling, say, “The Wild, Wild West” series; and like others, I hoped to be called in front of the room to win a salesman of the week award. Instead my supervisor called me in to say that my verification callbacks had produced the lowest rate of confirmed sales in the history of the Seattle office. Fired from even this lowly job at the age of 28, I was already a failed Time Life Books salesman, which was a sobering proposition.

As a tractor driver and apple orchard foreman, age 27

I stumbled on another job possibility. A coffee shop in downtown Seattle, called Starbucks, was going to open a second branch – imagine that, a second branch of Starbucks – What were they thinking? — and they needed an assistant manager. Now, I had worked for a year in Wisconsin in a coffee house, so I brushed up on my knowledge of coffee and tea, but failed to be interviewed for the job.
But here, my chaotic narrative begins to take shape, because on the very next day in August, the Seattle Times newspaper carried a story about a shortfall in University of Washington admissions, noting that they would take applicants off the street for the semester that was going to start in two weeks. I headed down to admissions and signed up. As my finger ran down the list of possible majors to declare, it stopped at “ethnomusicologist”. Here was a term that seemed to resonate with my interests in world music, Irish and Caribbean music performance, and maybe even progressive internationalism. My finger kept coming back to this major, like a compass needle finding magnetic north. I had stumbled on my calling in life.
You have to understand that every conversation with my mom for the last ten years had come around to the question: “When are you going to go back to school?” So the first person I called was my mom to tell her that I was now enrolled to get a BA in ethnomusicology. After asking what that was, and what in the world I would do with a BA in it, she got around to the crux of her concern, “Aren’t you a little old to be in school?

Okay, perhaps I was. But I had committed just to the two years that it would take for me to finish a BA. However, my professors had other plans for me and nominated me for a Mellon Fellowship for graduate school. I hadn’t planned on graduate school, but the Mellon was a powerfully persuasive tool. And Mellon required a 5-year commitment to teaching. Five years of study and 5 years of teaching add up to a ten-year plan! I had never planned more than 6 months ahead in my life, so this kind of timeline was something new to me.

I wish I could say I planned any of it, but back injuries, university admissions cycles, and the failure to earn my fortune with Starbucks had led me to something about which I was passionate and to which I could devote myself fully and for the remainder of my life– this was a clear case of serendipity at work.
Allow me to take a quick digression concerning serendipity. It was in 1754 that Horace Walpole, the 4th Earl of Orford and cousin of celebrated Lord Nelson, wrote a letter in which he coined the term “serendipity”, from the Persian name (Serendip) for the island nation now called Sri Lanka. He wrote, “It was once when I read a silly fairy tale, called The Three Princes of Serendip: as their highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of.” The term has come into popular usage especially because so many revolutionary products, inventions, new pharmaceuticals, and scientific discoveries have occurred as a result of serendipity. Viagra, for instance, was being tested for the heart condition known as angina – it showed little efficacy in treating angina but had an odd and unanticipated side effect on male users that became the basis of an immensely profitable new industry.

My own dissertation topic? Well, again, accident and serendipity. I hoped to work on Cuban music, but couldn’t get a permit from the U.S. to study in Cuba. I designed a project to work on a processional music from Haiti called rara, learned Haitian Creole, and got a Fulbright grant, but then came a revolution in Haiti, which made the political and security situation unstable and Fulbright pulled back all of their grants to the country. I cast about and landed on another topic: a form of popular music in the French Caribbean islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe called zouk with an interesting relationship to the question of Afro-Caribbean vs. French identity. But a week before I left for Guadeloupe, I called a French Canadian colleague for travel tips, and she said, “I can’t believe this, but SSHRC has just given me a grant to pursue the same research project!” Catastrophe turned into serendipity when my colleague suggested I turn my attention back to Haiti and to collaborate with her on a book about popular music in the Francophone Caribbean, and I found myself embarked on a research project that was far more interesting and productive than any I had conceived of before.

Did I intend on becoming a music journalist on the side? No, but I complained once to the Miami New Times that they ignored Haitian music in Miami and they asked me to do a story. That story caught the eye of The Beat magazine, which asked for a single article and then, without consulting me, assigned me to be a regular columnist, writing a column called “Haitian Fascination”. And these columns caught the attention of record company executives, film directors like Jonathan Demme, and festival producers, and I found myself producing record compilations, writing liner notes, running festivals of Haitian music, and so on such that I developed a sideline career to my academic work. I later found out that this kind of work was being called applied and public ethnomusicology. I teach this now, and write on it, but it was, like most aspects of my career, something onto which I stumbled while I was pursuing something else.

My second major research project was perhaps more accidental than the first. As I visited my mother on the west coast of Florida before my first trip to Haiti, I was lugging a trunk full of research equipment with which I needed practice. So I set about trying to find a music group to record, but the pickings in the retirement villages on the west coast of Florida were slim. However, the Fort Myers Sun, a local paper, had an announcement for the opening the Thomas Edison Shopping Mall at which a local men’s barbershop chorus, the Caloosahatchee Chorus, was going to sing. They invited me afterwards to a party called an “afterglow” and that encounter with a barbershop group morphed into a 12-year research project on the social history of American barbershop harmony!

So, if any of our students are reading this blog, and thinking about the possibilities in your lives and careers, please don’t think that the Dean is telling you not to prepare well or to plan ahead, because luck and serendipity strike much more frequently for those who are prepared and who work hard. But also please recognize that many of the transformative moments in your lives, many of the opportunities that open up for you and paths that you travel down will be the ones not planned for; the serendipitous products of, as Horace Walpole said, “accidents and sagacity” while you are searching for something else.
When I was driving my tractor around the apple orchards 30 years ago, I didn’t have my current life in mind. Nevertheless, here I am, and I count myself immensely fortunate to serve as dean. So whether you call it luck, happenstance, accident, serendipity, fate, or the will of God, I hope that you too will be able to recognize and be open to taking advantage of the opportunities and chance encounters – that your life too will be the beneficiary of productive accidents and unexpected discoveries. (first conceived for a convocation speech, 2008, revised)

7 Responses to Thanks to serendipity

  1. Deb Pickman

    I can so relate to this. Serendipity has had a great influence on my life – and so have my friends. At every exciting turn my career has taken since graduation from UBC, there’s a friend (often an alumni) who’s urged me to pursue something they thought I excelled at – who has put my name forward or even offered me a job. I’m grateful to serendipity, friends – and for living in a great country where so many of life’s chance discoveries are remarkably positive ones. Thanks for a great post!

  2. Rino Manarin

    Well thnk you, I think you have made up my mind for me. I am preently getting smarted at VCC in english and math, I didn’t listen to well when I was in high school. So after working for about 50 years at variuos things and jobs an having retired about 10 years ago I am about to cap my carreer with an eduation from UBC and after reading your blog, you have inspired me to think about getting a BA at your university. I am really inspired and was having trouble deciding in which direction I should go. BUt I can see where ARts can lead in most any direction I desire. I am not looking for a career but just putting a cap on my career which I would be most happy to tell you what it was. Again Thanks for the inspiration I m 79 years old actually 80 at the end of this year.
    Take care and good luck.

  3. Rino Manarin

    will need some spelling practice I guess.

  4. » A dose of Inspiration.

    […] The Art’s Dean, Gage Averill, could not have put this more perfectly in his blog post about his career path. It’s incredibly rare to have a linear career anymore. Instead, we are […]

  5. Girish Chandra

    Loved the article. Thank You. I am happy to have stumbled upon this blog.

    As Dr. Krumboltz may aptly put it – “Happenstance” or “Planned Happenstance”. There is an undeniable role of serendipity in making our career. I recently made this blog entry called “Career Journey” on my website, which I think is in line with the above article –

    Thank you for opening your experience for us to learn.

  6. UBC Student

    Ah, to live in a generation where universities fill gaps in admissions with domestic applicants. Those were the days.

  7. averillg

    Good and effective use of sarcasm-I like this comment. But the little-know fact is that UBC Arts is doing everything possible to enrol all qualified domestic applicants. We’re experiencing a challenge given that the number of high school graduates in Canada and BC is expected to remain lower over the next 7-8 years, so tell all your domestic friends with qualifying GPAs to apply to Arts!!

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