Serendipity and Baseball Cards

Baseball card

“There are two ways to live: you can live as if nothing is a miracle, or you can live as if everything is a miracle.”

-Albert Einstein


I had already been collecting baseball cards for a few years before it happened.

Sometime in elementary school, I believe it was around the fourth grade, I was at the local GameStop looking to buy a new pack.

I asked the cashier if they had any, and he pulled out a brand of cards I had never seen before. This was no Topps or Fleer; it was something else entirely. That day, I bought my first pack of MLB Showdown cards, which, unlike the others, was a game rather than just a collector’s item.

It may have been the most significant purchase I have ever made.

No, it’s not because I went on to win tournaments, make a career out of it, or anything like that. It’s because that one pack changed the entire trajectory of my life, although I didn’t know it at the time.

How is this possible?

In elementary school, I had two main groups of friends, and neither was especially fond of the other. To balance these friendships, I would sit at their respective lunch tables on alternating days.

This card game caught on with one of my groups of friends, but not the other.

And then we went to middle school. I had hoped to balance these friendships with the same alternating lunch table strategy that had worked so well before, but my middle school had a different policy. Wherever you sat the first time became your assigned table for the rest of the year.

So I sat with my friends who liked to play with these baseball cards. For the next several years, I fell out of touch with the other group.

Through a certain chain of events hinging on this split (too long to sketch out in full here), I went on to do marching band and fencing in high school, while the other group mostly played soccer.

Had I sat at the other table, perhaps I would have played soccer too, and never joined the band or the fencing team. I don’t intend to give you my life story here, but you can imagine that this choice of extracurricular activities had serious ramifications for my life in high school.

And those high school experiences shaped my decisions for where to go to college, what to study, and so on.

All because of a throwaway decision to buy a pack of baseball cards.

(In case you were curious, I have gone on to reconnect with friends from the other group, and now have very close relationships with both.)

It’s incredible how much our lives can hinge on seemingly meaningless situations or decisions.

I think about this baseball card story a lot, but there must be many other turning points in my life that I am not conscious of. In fact, as I am writing this now, I am realizing that the two events I planned on writing about for this post are intricately tied together in ways I had not even remotely conceived of before.

About a year ago, I moved halfway across the country to take a job, which had been brought to my attention by a former college roommate, Ben.

I had first met Ben in high school, when he fenced for a competing team. I recognized him when he rushed my fraternity, which he became a part of, and where we lived together for a semester.

Were it not for him, there is no way I would have moved out to Wisconsin, which I couldn’t even have located on a map.

While Ben was working long hours, I had a week and a half with nothing to do, bored and alone in a new city. Despite some initial internal resistance, I joined a popular online dating site.

In the following month, I went on two dates, both of which went well. But I didn’t think either girl was particularly interesting, so nothing came of it.

Then work started, I got busy, and I no longer felt the crushing need for something like online dating, since I was meeting loads of new people at my job. I largely ignored my profile for the next three or four months.

On one particularly long day in February, I got my weekly “check these people out” email, and for the fun of it, decided to go back online while taking the bus back from work. One particular girl caught my attention. She was attractive, Jewish, and according to the site, a good match, but she hadn’t written anything in her profile.

What would I say to her without any info from her profile to go off of? I very nearly said nothing.

But instead, I pointed out that her username rhymed. Expecting no response to my brilliant pickup line, I closed the app and opened up my book.

But wait! She responded almost immediately, and we started talking. We met up the Sunday after, and we’ve been happily dating ever since.

How different my life would be now had I not sent that message!

While I’m sure there are many lessons that can be learned from this experience (be willing to take chances, even nerds can find a girlfriend, etc.), I think the most important is that even the most trivial actions can have incredible ramifications.

When I first set out to write this post, I had considered the baseball card story and the new girlfriend story to be two separate examples of mundane actions with wide-ranging and serendipitous consequences.

I now realize that it is one long, powerful chain stretching back to that one pack of MLB Showdown cards, and likely some unrecognized events even before then.

We ought to value each and every moment as though the entire trajectory of our lives hinged on it. Not in the sense of stressing out about decisions, but that no matter what we do, amazing consequences may follow directly from it. A $3 pack of baseball cards can lead to a hot girlfriend 15 years later.

If you look back at your life, you will surely find instances where you didn’t appreciate the full significance of what happened at the time. Perhaps some adversity you faced directly led to something wonderful later on. Perhaps some adversity you are facing now will be the cause of your success in the future.

Perhaps yesterday’s sandwich will turn into tomorrow’s Nobel Prize.

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  1. this really brings to my mind sam harris’ ‘illusion of free will’ view. have you heard of it? basically he is arguing that people’s conventional sense of ‘self’ is illusory and by extension so is our conception of ‘free will.’ the reason is that we are unconscious of much of the causes for our conscious decisions, including thoughts, feelings genetic influences, etc. we don’t author our thoughts, weren’t responsible for choosing our genes, circumstance, etc. and yet they shape our entire life. basically, we are a product of largely unconscious processes of which we are unaware. like your seemingly benign decision to buy those odd cards, and how they led to where you are now.

    do you have an opinion on this?

    • Interesting! Can you send me a link to his paper describing this? Personally, I haven’t given huge consideration to the free will vs. determinism debate, of which this sounds highly related. I’m very interested in reading some more philosophical perspectives on the idea of self.

      • well, admittedly i myself find this concept very hard to grasp. here is where he tries to explain it:

        here is a video version:

        i actually didn’t have much interest in the philosophical debate either, but apparently the happiness of our entire lives can hinge on this realisation of experience.

        • Thanks, I’ll check this out! This is a busy week for me work-wise, so it may not be for a little bit. But it sounds interesting, so I definitely want to see what he’s talking about.

        • I just read this today – very interesting perspective! I would need to go far more in depth into the philosophy before I could argue for/against a particular viewpoint there, but I definitely hadn’t thought about it this way. I’m more open to the idea of determinism now.

  2. > But instead, I pointed out that her username rhymed.

    But you probabky calculated (rationally) that an approach, even ignored was far better than not doing so, simply because of the *chance* of reply. It so happens that there was a reply. (And good luck with this).

    >Perhaps yesterday’s sandwich will turn into tomorrow’s Nobel Prize.

    And hopefully all your choices and chance encounters today lead to something better.

    • Thanks for the comment, Noah! Yes, I suppose that was my thought. The “approach” when dating on the internet requires far less “putting yourself out there”, and thus is far easier than approaching people in real life. What made this more serendipitous in my opinion was that there were so many of those emails that I ignored, or looked at and did nothing about. But this time, I just happened to do something about it!


  1. Ebon Talifarro

    Serendipity and Baseball Cards – Feel Happiness

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