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Do Coincidences Give Good Guidance?

Blindly following synchronicities isn’t smart. Use 3 tips to mine their wisdom.

Key points

  • Any particular coincidence may be the product of chance, so use judgment in following it.
  • Coincidences often reflect your own feelings, making them great tools for learning about yourself.
  • Coincidences that seem to be steering you “wrong” can turn out to be unexpectedly helpful.
Source: Mircea Iancu / Pixabay
Is that call from a friend you've been thinking about a mere coincidence or a sign of something deeper?
Source: Mircea Iancu / Pixabay

Many of us experience coincidences that feel meaningful, even if we don’t see how they could be anything other than chance. Maybe you’re thinking about calling a friend you haven’t talked to in years, and then your phone rings and it’s them. Or maybe you’ve been thinking about changing careers, and then out of the blue you get offered a job that is exactly what you were imagining.

Coincidences like this often feel like “signs.” And when we’re in the midst of making a difficult life decision, we can find ourselves looking to these events for guidance. But how good is the guidance they provide? And are some ways of paying attention to coincidences better than others?

The Perfect Job

Let me start with a concrete example. Fourteen years ago, I decided to leave my career as an academic. When my postdoctoral fellowship came to a close, I didn’t apply for any other positions. A few months later, though, I started wondering if I had made the right choice. The deadline for applying for tenure-track jobs had already passed, but I decided to look through the ads anyway, figuring that if none of the jobs advertised were enticing, that would be an excellent confirmation of my choice.

As it happened, I saw the perfect job! It was at a university in my home state, in the area that most appealed to me, and they wanted someone with precisely my specialization. What was more, the application deadline for this job had been unusually extended and was still a month away! It seemed like a clear sign I should apply.

So I updated my résumé and asked my references for new letters. Then I needed to get my application to my alma mater, New York University, so they could mail my packet to the selection committee. That’s when I realized I had already—coincidentally—planned a trip to New York City the very weekend I needed to deliver the application. Another sign, right?

Except that, when I arrived in New York, I kept putting off delivering my application. In fact, I found myself staying away from NYU entirely. I couldn’t even bring myself to enter the neighborhood.

Source: Pixabay
Source: Pixabay

The morning of my last full day in the city, I was eating breakfast downtown when I looked out the window at an office building across the street. I could see people sitting in their offices, working away at their computers, and it made me think of the life I was signing up for in applying for this academic job. It actually made me sick to my stomach to think about once again sitting in an office all day long.

That’s when I decided that, no matter what the “signs” from the universe might be, I was not going to apply for that job. I never delivered my packet to NYU, and 14 years later I have not for a single moment regretted that decision.

Are Coincidences All Just Chance?

Should we conclude, then, that coincidences are all just chance? That none of them provide helpful guidance?

The answer is not so simple.

Like many people, I’ve also had experiences in which coincidences pointed me in fruitful directions and provided me improbably perfect opportunities that did feel right to my gut. Years after the incident described above, I was ready for another career change. I had pinpointed one particular month as the right time to make this transition, but I had no idea what my new source of income would be. As it happened, that very month a stranger wrote to me out of the blue offering me exactly the financial support I needed to start on my new path.

Experiences like this led me to spend the past decade and a half carefully studying the phenomenon of coincidences, investigating them from the perspective of probability theory as well as with regard to their psychological causes and effects (Rawlette, 2019a, 2019b). This study has led me to believe that there is something more than chance at work in many of these events—that our world does have more subtle organizing principles than those that are so far understood by the physical sciences, and that these organizing principles are linked to our deepest needs and desires.

But while the evidence as a whole suggests that some coincidences are more than just happenstance, it isn’t easy to figure out what forces are at work in any particular case. The good news is that we don’t have to settle the question of where coincidences come from before figuring out how best to respond to them.

Three Principles for Interpreting Coincidences

The following are three principles I’ve developed for using coincidences as guidance, and they’re equally helpful whether a coincidence is a mere product of chance or something more profound.

Source: Alicia Harper / Pixabay
Source: Alicia Harper / Pixabay
  1. Never trust “signs” over your gut. If something feels wrong, don’t do it, no matter how much coincidences seem to be pointing in that direction. Recognize that you are always the ultimate authority in your own life.
  2. Use coincidences as tools for tuning in to your intuition. As clinical psychologist Kirby Surprise points out in his book Synchronicity (2012), coincidences often reflect back to us our own thoughts and feelings. This means that we shouldn’t automatically interpret them as divine signs but rather use them as opportunities to more clearly understand what we’re thinking and feeling. What emotions does a particular coincidence provoke in you? Are you surprised by your reaction to it? Is it possible you’ve been pushing aside some thoughts and feelings you need to acknowledge? Coincidences can bring to the fore uncomfortable feelings that are actually giving you valuable information about aspects of your life that aren’t serving you well and need to be changed.
  3. Explore the tools of dream interpretation. Many of the techniques developed for understanding dreams are relevant to coincidences, too. If your coincidence had happened in a dream, how would you interpret its significance? A great book about the nuances of dream interpretation is Jeremy Taylor’s Dream Work (1983), and it's also very useful in exploring the multiple meanings of coincidences.

Ultimately, it’s important to realize that, whether coincidences are issuing from some divine source or are just a product of our own selective attention, they have the potential to be incredibly useful, but only if we employ them in better understanding ourselves. Coincidences won’t solve your problems or make your decisions for you, but they can give you hints about how to do those things yourself.

When I look back now on the coincidences that offered me the “perfect” academic job, I realize that they actually turned out to be helpful in an unexpected way. Sometimes it takes events perfectly aligning in a certain direction for you to realize how much you don’t want to take that route. Those coincidences helped me, not by steering me back to academia, but by removing any remaining doubts I had about leaving. And they taught me that the ultimate confirmation of any decision comes from within.


Rawlette, S. H. (2019a). Coincidence or psi? The epistemic import of spontaneous cases of purported psi identified post-verification. Journal of Scientific Exploration 33(1): 9–42.

Rawlette, S. H. (2019b). The Source and Significance of Coincidences: A Hard Look at the Astonishing Evidence.

Surprise, K. (2012). Synchronicity: The Art of Coincidence, Choice, and Unlocking Your Mind. Pompton Plains, NJ: New Page Books.

Taylor, J. (1983). Dream Work: Techniques for Discovering the Creative Power in Dreams. Ramsey, NJ: Paulist Press.

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