We’ve all had the feeling at some point in our lives where it seems other people catch all the lucky breaks while we seem to be screwing everything up. It’s a common perceptual bias. In other people, we focus on the successful result, not the toil and struggle they endured to reach it or the missed opportunities and growth experiences they suffered through. While in ourselves, all we’re aware of is the toil and struggle we endure and not the success that is readily apparent to others. It’s a kind of Blind Man’s Bluff that we’re all doomed to continue playing throughout our lives.
The concept of “luck” stems from this perceptual bias: the belief that some people’s existence defies mathematical probability, that because they have it and we don’t, they’re violating the universe’s probabilities.
The truth is, across the spectrum of a lifetime, we all receive both opportunity and injustice in healthy doses. Some of us may defy the odds early in life, perhaps by being born into perfect circumstances, and then face unfair or unlikely challenges later on. Others may be born into squalid conditions, but as they grow, they meet great opportunities that change everything for them. Or sometimes chance can be just that — random chance. My grandfather started seven businesses throughout his lifetime. He became a millionaire once and went bankrupt twice. He finally sold his last business for a modest sum so he could retire in rural Texas with his remaining comforts. A few years later they struck oil on his property. A lifetime of hard work, risk-taking, spectacular successes and more spectacular failures, and the minute he hangs it all up and calls it quits, he struck oil.
Life’s cruel roll of the dice.
But the truth is, we can actually control our luck to a certain extent. Although we may not directly affect the major opportunities that enter our life at any given moment (like finding oil on our property), we can indirectly influence how many opportunities spring up and the ferocity with which we pounce on them. In fact, if we define “luck” as the number of beneficial opportunities and life events that happen to us which aren’t completely in our control, recent research not only finds that some people are much luckier than others, but that those lucky people have quite a few things in common.
And no, it’s not rabbit’s feet. Or a dearth of black cats. Lucky people have specific behaviors and mindsets which cause them to encounter far more opportunities and advantages than others on average. You can, in effect, train yourself to become a lucky person, if you so choose:
1. Be A Social Butterfly
Psychologist Richard Wiseman is an authority on luck — or what is perceived as luck in our lives. In his book The Luck Factor, Wiseman found that the best predictor of how many “lucky breaks” a person has was how social and interconnected they were with those around them. Lucky people enjoy connecting and relating to other people and are comfortable doing so. When presented with new social situations, unlucky people talked to people they already knew or people who were most like themselves, whereas lucky people talked to a large array of people equally.
Most of life’s opportunities don’t land on us mysteriously. They come through our networks, our connections, people we stumble across at random.
My one-and-only attempt at a day job was landed through an acquaintance I had made when I was going out five nights-a-week in Boston back in 2007. I once landed an audition for a touring rock band by randomly meeting the singer at a Fourth of July party (he and I happened to be hitting on the same girl). A blogger recently wrote about sitting down in a coffee shop to work on his laptop and accidentally striking up a conversation with an old man who just happened to have invented the first ever programmable computer and spent the afternoon chatting with him.
Wiseman states in his book:
“I discovered that being in the right place at the right time is actually all about being in the right state of mind… Lucky people increase their odds of chance encounters or experiences by interacting with a large number of people. And that makes perfect sense: Chance opportunities are a numbers game. The more people and perspectives in your sphere of reference, the more likely good insights and opportunities will combine.”
As the old saying goes, it’s not what you know, but who you know.
2. Periodically Do Something Stupid
The perception of luck is more likely to fall on those who take a dumb risk or two. Again, it comes back to our perceptual biases. We notice the spectacular successes and quickly forget about the fizzled failures. If you’re on vacation with your buddy and he decides to go on to the strip club by himself at 5AM and next thing you know he’s showing up in your hotel room at noon with two women on his arm and stories about partying with Charlie Sheen all morning, chances are he’s not some divine purveyor of fortune, but rather he’s had a lot of meaningless, lackluster nights at strip clubs and this time he happened to wander into the right one at the right moment.
Spontaneity will open you up to more potential opportunities and adventures. Falling into the same drab fixed routine is going to yield less unexpected opportunities and fewer possible big gains.
There is a horizon to our ability to see opportunities when we pursue certain actions. For instance, we may see the one clear opportunity available if we quit our job or move to a new country or take up a new hobby. But we don’t see the other opportunities that job, that move, or that hobby will lead to.
For instance, when I started working online, I thought it was my internet business or bust. I either made it work or I’d be dutifully gulped back up by the 9-to-5 world. But over the years, I’ve met people and had opportunities for business ventures in places as odd as Thailand, Ukraine, and Brazil. I’ve made friends of different industries in the most random of ways and have developed connections that keep me confident that I’ll never have to work a day job again for the rest of my life.
And chances are if I had acted on any of those opportunities, they wouldn’t have completely worked out, but would have opened me up to a whole new host of opportunities I can’t fathom at the moment. Such is success — a long, painful string of failed shots and course corrections. What is commonly perceived as luck is often merely someone who wasn’t afraid to screw up a few dozen times.
The point is this: be open-minded and spontaneous. The guy with the hideous shirt may actually be the perfect business partner for your new venture. The networking event your brother is dragging you to could actually score you court-side tickets to a playoff basketball game. That guy who sold you cocaine might introduce you to your future spouse. You never know.
(OK, probably not.)
3. Maximize Your Return On Luck
Recently, two researchers finished up a nine-year study on luck and its role in determining the fate of the most successful companies in the world. Did tycoons such as Bill Gates simply get bigger lucky breaks more often? Did software businesses go under when Microsoft thrived because of unfortunate circumstances, because of unpredictable events outside of their control which derailed their company?
The surprising answer is no.
In fact, the researchers found after measuring 230 “luck events” over dozens of businesses, that the ultra-successful businesses did not receive any more lucky breaks than the companies that failed on average and vice versa. What set them apart is something they dubbed “Return on Luck” (ROL).
All businesses have positive and negative events impact their businesses in unpredictable ways. What sets the successful companies apart from the others is that they maximize their positive luck and minimize their negative luck. They get a high ROL. When Bill Gates found out he had the opportunity to program an operating system from the original Altair, he stayed up for weeks on end, skipping classes, often not sleeping for days at a time, to take advantage of the opportunity. He was able to recognize that this was a once-in-a-lifetime moment and he had the wherewithal to push through and take advantage of it. That’s a high ROL. Researchers found that the ultra-successful companies regularly did this. And even though other companies were exposed to similar lucky circumstances, the most successful companies took far more advantage of the serendipitous situation.
In addition, the best companies were able to minimize bad luck the most successfully, or even in some cases, turn bad luck into a strength and an advantage. The companies that failed? Not so much. As soon as disaster struck, they caved.
4. Be Optimistic
Not to rattle off the ridiculous list of the benefits of optimism or anything (optimists are healthier, happier, more successful, more likable, they live longer, etc.), but being optimistic and generally expecting the best of people and things around you goes a long way to accomplishing bullet point number one above: i.e., no one likes hanging out with a negative asshole.
But beyond just helping you become the most popular girl at the prom (like you’ve always wanted to be), optimism and overestimation of oneself is more likely to lead to successful performance. Even the belief that one is lucky can alter one’s results drastically. Score another point for adopting positive beliefs.
But this isn’t hocus-pocus stuff. Our performance usually rises to the level of our expectations. If you consistently expect yourself to be better than you actually are, then research suggests that you’re more likely to improve and have a large breakthrough. A little bit of healthy delusion goes a long way.
And in terms of optimism/pessimism, think of it this way. Optimists are more likely to identify a lot of “false positives” — believing something is good when it’s really bad — while pessimists will more likely identify “false negatives” — believing something is bad when it’s actually good. It’s not hard to see what is more advantageous. While optimists will sometimes mistake a steaming turd for pure gold, they will not miss a piece of genuine gold when it crosses their path. Pessimists, on the other hand, will spot every steaming turd they come across (and duly let you know about it, I’m sure), but they will also mistake opportunities of genuine gold and let them slip away (kind of like a turd).
So are you in the business of spotting turds or spotting gold?
[Image credit: Justin Ornellas]