If luck = preparation + opportunity, then we have the following two components that make up luck:
Opportunity – we cannot control this, but we can control ourselves, and adopt a positive, open-minded, relaxed and proactive mindset so that we can make the best of existing opportunity and be receptive to new opportunity.
Preparation – we can take action, i.e. do something, whether in response to an opportunity or in preparation for it.
The right mindset will naturally lead to the right actions, which is why we spent so much time exploring the way that lucky people’s attitudes and personalities differ from unlucky people’s. But as is probably clear to you by now, action matters – a lot – and so it’s worth also exploring the quintessential behaviors that set lucky people apart. What exactly do they do, day in and day out, that puts them on a different, luckier path in life?
Task 1: Work harder
This should come as no surprise! It goes against our conventional understanding of a lucky person (i.e., someone who has nice things just fall into their laps), but the unglamorous truth is that lucky people work hard. Really hard. True, you might hear a story of some amazing opportunity coming to find someone while they were doing something else, but usually that “something else” was working hard on another goal, related or not.
Lucky people lean into the “preparation” part of the above equation, and they do everything they can to invite and keep luck in their life. Once they catch a lucy break, they milk it for everything it’s worth. Not everything they do leads directly to results, but it doesn’t have to, and they don’t expect it to. Imagine a wildlife photographer who wins a prize for an absolutely phenomenal shot of a bird caught midflight catching an insect. The picture captures a moment of perfect timing, but conceals that the photographer took dozens (or hundreds!) or imperfect photos, and even then, the chosen pic was edited, cropped and tweaked further.
Imagine, too, that this photograph had been entered unsuccessfully into several competitions over the course of years, and that it represents countless conversations about those competitions, advice garnered from industry professionals, hours spent in photography courses, and weekend evenings devoted to learning how to use photo editing software.
Now imagine even further that one day this person is at an awards event because of this picture they took, and here they meet a person they instantly click with. This person loves the photographer’s portfolio and is really impressed with the passion and enthusiasm that they have when talking about their work. Spontaneously, they say, “Hey, I’m working on this new film project, and I’d love to have someone like you on our team. What do you say?” And just like that, another related but completed unexpected opportunity opens up, and our esteemed photographer now has the chance to expand their skills into the film-making world.
It’s luck, yes. But luck riding on the back of lots and lots of hard work. Meeting the film maker at the awards event was pure chance. But there were two things that made the photographer able to grasp that chance and run with it: the cumulative results of all the work they’d done so far (i.e., the winning photo) and their enthusiasm when talking about their photography passion (more on this in just a moment).
Whatever it is you’re trying to achieve, put in the hours. Imagine you are laying the groundwork so that when your chance arrives, everything is in place, ready and waiting for it. Create and build things that you can point to with pride. Practice a skill that is valuable to others and can be transferred to other areas of life (like coding, public speaking, a new language or even general business skills). If you are an artist or creative like the photographer above, build your portfolio so that you have something to show promising people who wander into your life.
If you’re launching a new business, fine-tune your “elevator pitch” or print business cards – you may never use them, but not having them ready when/if you need them will cost you far more than it costs to do it just in case. Save up money, educate yourself, and put in the practice hours. Keep up with events in your area of passion or expertise. Keep showing up. Even if it doesn’t immediately feel like it, by doing so you are making daily contributions to an investment that may well pay off one day. Remember, though, to maintain the right mindset: keep reminding yourself that your efforts do have an impact, and that you may need to be resilient and patient enough to hang in there until that impact manifests. Remember, also, that effort needs to be intelligent. Keep consistent and don’t give up, but if something genuinely isn’t working, don’t be afraid to adapt and try something else!
Task 2: Use the luck surface area theory
Let’s return to our photographer friend, and imagine that things had played out a little differently for him. Let’s imagine that he worked really hard to hone his craft, took pains to take an amazing photo, submitted it everywhere and then won the award at the ceremony. And then went home. Or, imagine that he stayed, but since he felt intimidated by all the people there and a little unconfident in himself, he spent the evening being a phony, i.e., trying to impress others by talking about the things he thought he was supposed to talk about. Noticing everyone was a film maker, he launches into the discussions about various films but comes across as insecure and a faker (remember self-fulfilling prophecies?). The people at the ceremony aren’t really impressed and forget about him soon after.
He put in just as much hard work as in our previous example, but in this story, he doesn’t meet the film maker who offers him the opportunity of a lifetime. The dominos set in motion by his initial hard work stop falling, and the luck runs out.
What’s happened here?
According to the “surface area” theory of luck, he’s reduced his overall exposure to luck. The hard work stayed the same, but something else disappeared from the equation.
The truth is that success is not a linear path, and lucky breaks emerge when a special combination of forces come together to make them possible. Hard work, grit and resilience, education, knowing how to hustle, perseverance, connections… which matters most? Well, they all matter, when they work together.
Enter Jason Roberts, who coined the term “luck surface area.” To put it briefly, luck surface area is the degree of action to take concerning your passion plus the number of people you share that passion with. In other words, action plus communication. Like for our photographer, his success resulted from a combination of his persistent hard work, and the effective communication of his passion with the people that mattered. How do you know which people will matter? Well, you don’t. That’s why you have to communicate your passion to as many people as possible!
His equation goes as follows: Luck = Doing x Telling
Basically, luck is a result of the interaction between acting towards your passion, and speaking up to others about it. Imagine a graph where the x-axis is telling and the y-axis is doing, and the resulting surface area of the square they create represents the potential for luck. The more you tell people about your passion, the further along the x-axis you travel, but if you don’t pair that with hard work, you end up with a flattish rectangle with a small area. Similarly, if you put in loads of hard work but don’t pair that with broadcasting your process, your surface area also isn’t great.
You need both for the biggest possible surface area. Expertise and connections. Hard work and lucky breaks that come from others. Action and sharing and telling others about the actions you’re taking. So, while we’ve seen time and again that taking action is what really moves the needle when it comes to bringing luck into your life, it needs to be an action that is shared, broadcast, and talked about.
Your luck will be directly proportional to the degree to which you actually do something about your passion, combined with the number of people you communicate this passion to.
“It’s all hard work.”
“It’s about passion.”
“It’s not what you know; it’s who you know.”
It turns out that all of the above are true. Let’s see how we can put this theory into practice and start bringing in the serendipity.
Think carefully about an area in life where you are trying to cultivate more luck, be it work or relationships or creative pursuits.
Draw a simple graph with telling on the x-axis and doing on the y-axis. Thinking about the past month, how much work did you do in this area of life? Imagine that on a scale of 1 to 10, that 10 is doing all you can to the best of your abilities. Similarly, ask yourself how often you’ve spoken to others about your project or goals, and to how many different people. Score 10 if you speak often and to more than a handful of people.
Draw the square and observe your total luck surface area. Now you can visually see if you are not doing enough of one or the other (or both!).
Based on what you find, commit to taking one step towards increasing this surface area. This could be by setting yourself the goal of talking to one new person per week about your passion, dedicating an extra hour every day to learning or building, or something in between.
Don’t stop there! Pay close attention to the results these actions produce. Notice what works and, you guessed it, do more of that!
You may discover that you score low on both doing and telling. In this case, lucky you! It means that any action you take to increase either quantity will improve your overall luck exposure. Should you find that your surface area is actually pretty good already, then simply imagine a third dimension of time, and trust that if you keep going as you are, consistency and persistence will pay off.
As you consider the actions you’ll take and the way you’ll share your message, bear in mind what we’ve covered in previous chapters about a lucky mindset and thought patterns. Be resilient and patient, stay optimistic and don’t get too neurotic about anything. Let’s look at some examples.
You’re looking for a new job but aren’t having any luck. You follow the above process to check in on your luck surface area. You discover that while you’re putting in hours submitting resumes, doing interviews and chatting to recruiters, you actually are spending barely any time just talking to people about your mission. In fact, you realize that most of your social circle don’t even know you’re looking for a job. Oops!
You take action. You go on social media to let everyone know who you are, and what you’re looking for. You even ask close friends to ask around for you and see if anyone knows anyone looking for someone like you. These so-called “weak connections” (i.e. friends of friends of friends) are sometimes the most valuable in generating luck. Your friend’s mom knows a guy whose wife teaches a course in the field you’re trying to find work in. It’s a long shot, but a few careful conversations and questions later, you get a mutual friend to introduce you. At first, you just approach her not looking for a job, but to ask her advice in general, and make a networking connection.
You have a nice chat, but she says she can’t help you. However, she knows an ex student who started working for a company that was seemingly always hiring. She gives you their details. You reach out, mention her name, and get on a phone call with the director. He tells you they’re not hiring, but he’ll be in touch if anything comes up. A full month later, you finally hear from him – he doesn’t want to hire you, but a colleague does, and are you interested?
You say yes, and “luckily” for you, you’ve got a million different versions of a brilliant resume on hand, so you can immediately jump in, prepared and ready for anything. You’ve been drilling interview questions for weeks, and not only that, you’re also savvy about what other companies are offering salary-wise, since you’ve applied to so many positions. You ace the interview and within a few days you’re hired for the perfect job for you.
Luck or hard work? This story would not have worked without either the hard work or the communication with others. The luck surface area theory explains how luck is a function of how proactive we are, and the relationships we’re able to build with others.
Let’s look at another example. Let’s say you’re trying to fulfil your lifelong dream of having a book published. You’ve had this dream since childhood, and everyone who knows you knows that this is your mission in life. But it occurs to you that there may be an imbalance between doing and telling.
While you tell everyone who will listen about your grand ideas for the book’s structure, the ideas you want to share and why, when you sit down to draw the graph mapping out your luck surface area, you’re surprised to see how little action you’re actually taking towards this goal. In fact, the book is only half written and you haven’t added to it in months. You already know that lucky breaks happen to those who boldly share their dreams and broadcast their goals, but you may have taken things too far, because you realize that you haven’t written a book yet!. You set a goal (let’s say:
Finally, consider an example where the doing and the telling are both low. Perhaps it’s time to admit to yourself if you are quietly harboring a dream that you’ve never told anyone about, and you’ve never taken any steps to realize. Maybe you’re a proponent of the law of attraction and are still quietly hoping that wanting good things hard enough will somehow make them happen. Or maybe you lack faith and confidence in yourself, and your lack of luck in this area is a manifestation of the fact that you’re not yet completely committed to this goal.
The luck surface area exercise is not meant to make you feel bad for what you’re not doing, or not doing enough of. It’s meant to help you identify those places in life that will most reward you if you pour your energy into them. What a shame to waste energy and time on things that will only yield a small result, if anything.
If there is not enough doing, then find a way, today, to take action:
• Set a small goal in the right direction, and then accomplish it.
• Create or build something, for example, write a chapter, make a business plan or work on your website.
• Learn something. Ask yourself what lack of knowledge is currently getting in the way, and commit to figuring out more about that area.
• Get organized. Tidy up your office, create a new filing system to keep track of documents, or plan your month ahead in detail.
• Solve problems. Ask for help, get rid of what isn’t working, and strategize so that obstacles feel a little smaller going forward.
If there’s not enough telling, then find a way, today, to start speaking up about your passion:
• If you introduce yourself to someone new, share a few details about what you’re working on, and allow your excitement to show. Brag a little if you want to!
• Deliberately ask others to hold you accountable, or partner up with people who have projects of their own so you can regularly touch base and compare notes.
• Tell people whom you don’t even necessarily think can help you in any way – you never know!
• Share your plans with people you admire and respect. This will give shape and definition to your goals, as well as motivate you to achieve your goals. Plus, these are the people most likely to have insights or opportunities for you.
• Don’t just share your triumphs. If you’re having difficulties, speak up. Help and solutions may come specifically because you asked for them.
• Ask for advice and insight from others as a way to share your mission.
The surface area theory is all about the interaction between telling and doing, so, as best as you can, try to make your telling support your doing, and your doing support your telling. Make connections with new people, and then take actions that nurture that new relationship. Work hard and then share the results of that effort with others. Tell people what fires you up and why, and when they show an interest, be ready to run with it, and convert it to action.
Task 3: Visualize and repeat affirmations
The third method we’re going to put under the microscope is the visualization and affirmation method. These two distinct but related techniques can be powerful tools towards building a lucky and more fortuitous life.
Visualization entails thinking about the goals we want to accomplish or the things we want to attain in our lives and using our imagination to generate an image of those things in our minds. There is no discrimination about what types of good fortune you can visualize having — physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual are all fair game. The key to good visualization is vividness – you want to conjure up an image that is as detailed and rich as possible. You can do this not only by drawing on all 5 of your senses but by remembering to include thoughts and emotions in the images you’re visualizing.
You might, for example, visualize yourself being in the best physical shape of your life, parking your Land Rover in the garage of your mansion, or being welcomed home by your ideal spouse and adoring children as you walk through the door. Another version of this is to create what’s known as a vision board, where you put a picture of everything you want to achieve or attain on a whiteboard so you can see it daily.
What’s key in visualizing is to form as detailed a mental image as possible of what you want to achieve or attain. It may take time. You’d be surprised how often people think they know what they want, right up until they try to visualize it, and realize that they’re unclear on the details or, once they immerse themselves in the vision, they see that it’s not quite what they wanted. Visualizing makes things happen, but it helps you find clarity and focus on your goals.
The second part of this technique is to repeat positive affirmations about your goals and desires as you maintain the mental image of yourself having achieved and acquired these things in your mind. In other words, you are repeating to yourself phrases about what you want to accomplish and attain. The positive affirmations are repeated frequently — often in front of the mirror —to manifest whatever sort of positive energy is required for these visualizations to become a reality. For instance, you would look in the mirror and repeat, “I will be rich and own a large house” 10 times each morning.
Sound useless? Obviously, if you visualize outlandish and impossible things, no amount of positive affirmation will make those things come true. And the person who does precisely nothing to help that dream along is doing little more than indulging in fantasy. The real question is — in reasonable scenarios — does the visualization and affirmation method actually succeed in creating more desirable outcomes that are associated with luck? These are extremely popular methods to increase self-confidence, feelings of luck, and to extract what you want from life. But do they work? At first glance, the general idea is to increase your alertness and awareness of your goals. You are clearer on what you want, and may see in more detail the steps to get you there. But does visualizing and saying affirmations in itself make you more likely to achieve success and luck than someone who doesn’t?
Allen Richardson, an Australian psychologist, attempted to measure the impact of positive mental visualization in a tangible way. He first had all of the study participants shoot free throws (basketball shots), recording data on each player to determine their baseline shooting ability. Richardson then separated the participants into groups:
• Group A - Practiced free throws every day for 20 days
• Group B - Only shot free throws on the first and last days of the study
• Group C - Only shot free throws on the first and last days of the study, but mentally rehearsed shooting the free throws for 20 minutes per day every day in between
On the 20th day, all participants were gathered again and asked to shoot free throws.
Group A’s shooting percentage increased by an average of 25% with the 20 days of practice. Group B, unsurprisingly, didn’t show any improvement from their performances on the first day.
The discovery of the experiment, though, was that Group C’s shooting percentage increased by an average of 24%, almost identical to Group A. This occurred despite the fact that Group A had physically practiced shooting free throws for 20 days, while Group C hadn’t actually touched a basketball since the first day of the study.
Exciting result, right? Richardson concluded that positive visualization is indeed a powerful tool to be successful, at least in the case of putting a ball into a hoop. The participants who imagined the ball leaving their hands and traveling on a perfect trajectory until they watched it swish through the net showed truly remarkable improvement in 20 days. It is reasonable to say that they indeed made themselves more effective through positive visualization.
It might even be reasonable to say that one can make themselves luckier through visualizing the outcomes they want. The act of mental rehearsal can make you readier, more open, more aware, and more willing to jump into situations you might not have otherwise. It’s as though your unconscious mind sets about finding ways to make the picture real, looking for solutions, noticing opportunities, and interpreting events according to that powerful vision held by the imagination. You might find yourself getting better and more opportunities if you visualize them happening. Sounds like luck to me.
Meanwhile, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University attempted to determine if self-affirmations could positively impact performance.
The researchers gathered a group of 73 college students and asked them to rank 11 personal values in order of importance to them. Half of the participants were given an exercise of self-affirmation in which they wrote about what made the values at the tops of their lists so important to them. The other half served as the control group, so they were asked to write about the value they had put ninth on their list.
To measure the effects of the self-affirmations on the participants, they were given a timed problem-solving test and intentionally subjected to stress by an evaluator. The results of the tests showed that the test-takers who had been a part of the self-affirmation group scored better on the test than those from the control group.
These results indicated that self-affirmations can be a beneficial tool that people can use to remain calm and think flexibly while under pressure. When we feel stressed and anxious, our brains typically can’t operate as smoothly as we’d like. As stress is an undesirable reaction of our mind to stimulation, it’s possible that positive self-affirmations can be helpful to anybody who experiences significant pressure to perform in work or school. Affirmations may not expressly help you perform better in themselves, but they’ll help you not perform poorly, which is just as important most of the time.
This likely isn’t the first time that you’ve heard about positive visualizations and affirmations, so it’s good to know that this method actually does have some scientific merit behind it. We’ve seen that performance can be enhanced somewhat and that affirmations definitely have a positive effect on mood and anxiety. But the major question remains: Does the visualization and affirmation method legitimately increase your luck?
Kind of, yes.
That’s as concrete of an answer as exists. The results of these studies do show that it is possible to positively influence our own mental states. That can definitely be characterized as setting the ground for luck, though not generating luck itself.
More importantly, these studies illustrate the power of believing in ourselves — not that we are lucky, but that we are capable. These methods — when applied reasonably — are in a way teaching us to shift to a more internal locus of control, where the role of luck is far less significant in our perceptions about the world and our abilities. Again, we run into the quandary of personal accountability denying the concept of luck. Again it would seem that the luckiest people are those that deliberately do not rely on luck but who instead embrace their agency and do what they can to bring about the results they want.
What about superstitions?
While many people consider themselves spiritual or religious, few among us would openly admit they believe in the more outlandish supernatural.
People might not willingly admit they believe in ghosts and monsters under the bed, but nonetheless, the vast majority of people have been shown to possess some sort of superstitious routines, have experienced an inexplicable hallucination, or have seen things they can only explain as magic. This has nothing to do with intelligence but rather something that all human beings naturally do –our evolved tendency to seek out patterns and cause-effect relationships.
Want your favorite sports team to win? You might just feel better if you wear the same pair of socks you wore the last time they won. It might be useless… but what if it’s not? These things creep into our lives in small, almost imperceptible ways that make it second nature for us to believe in them.
Essentially, the supernatural has become a catch-all umbrella term for things that lack a conventional explanation. Can’t explain it? It must be something supernatural. There may not always be a clear explanation, but blaming the missing cookies on a ghost and not the dog belies a very interesting tendency for humans to try to apply understanding to that which is out of their grasp.
You’ve likely read about this tendency when learning about ancient and not-so-ancient civilizations. The Greeks assigned a god to nearly everything as a scapegoat or savior while Native Americans engaged in rain dances to help their crops flourish for the coming harvest. We have the overwhelming desire to feel in control; if we are out of control, we risk feeling insignificant or subject to danger. When we feel we have control over something, we are suddenly more engaged and invested; if we feel there is no control, we feel helpless to the powers that be.
We believe in supernatural forces exerting control because something we don’t understand, yet can blame, is far more comforting than no explanation at all. Humans just don’t like to feel that we are random molecules of carbon and hydrogen that happened to coalesce and form somehow — we might be, but it sure feels better if we have a purpose.
This leads us to the question of superstitions, which are arguably the first way human beings developed to put their faith in the unexplained and supernatural.
Specifically, superstitions are behaviors or thought patterns that people engage in because they are hypothesizing the existence of a cause-and-effect relationship. You engage in superstitious acts because you believe it will get you closer to a specific outcome. For instance, if you notice that your favorite football team has won the past three times you’ve worn red underwear, a new superstition will be born: red underwear only on game days. You might not affect the game itself, but it appears that there is nevertheless a pattern of causation, so you’re going to adhere to it — sometimes even subconsciously.
Classical conditioning is the cause for many superstitions we hold throughout our lives. We commit an act, we see an outcome, and we begin to link the two, even though it’s no more than a correlation or simple coincidence. Surprisingly to some sports fans, sitting in the same chair while watching matches likely does not affect the end outcome just because it happened twice three years ago. This is why people don’t walk under ladders— because negative occurrences have coincided with that event — never mind the fact that walking under a ladder puts you directly into the path of falling debris. A superstition, then, takes the place of a rule or law in a phenomenon we lack insight or understanding for.logist B.F. Skinner proved in:
Shana Wilson from Kent State University investigated why people, specifically sports fans, engage in superstitious behavior. They concluded that people who engage in superstitious behaviors are more susceptible to what is called the uncertainty hypothesis, which is the idea that when people experience a complete lack of certainty, they seek to find a way in which they can exert some degree of control over it. A lack of certainty is extremely uncomfortable, and being able to point to something as a cause eases the underlying tension.
We can find examples of this in our own daily lives. We all hate bumper-to-bumper traffic. We enjoy driving unimpeded to our destinations. Which would you prefer: bumper to bumper traffic, or driving unimpeded, both of which would culminate in you driving the same distance over the same amount of time? Most of us would choose the latter; we would choose to drive unimpeded because we can control the speed of our car and how slowly or quickly we go. To be stuck in a situation like bumper-to-bumper traffic where we have zero control and are subject to the infernal gods of traffic — that gives us feelings of hopelessness and helplessness.
Not having control over situations, at the extreme end of the spectrum, is a feeling which underlies certain types of anxiety and depression. What motivation could you possibly have if you were certain everything would turn out terribly, despite your efforts? Therefore, many times, the more important an uncontrollable situation is, the more likely people are to try to exert a measure of control over it through superstitious behavior. Here, we are seeing the shadow side of the internal/external locus of control idea. Taking control of our lives leads us to feeling happier – whether that control is real or only imagined.Daniel Wann (:
Superstitions are generally harmless unless they replace actual work and effort. If they do nothing to change the actual outcome of an event but make people feel better along the way, it’s hard to see an issue. Problems arise when people can’t distinguish between an outcome they can control and an outcome beyond their control. Stuart Vyse, author and professor at Connecticut College, chalks superstitious behaviors up to the comforts of illusory control, saying, “There is evidence that positive, luck-enhancing superstitions provide a psychological benefit that can improve skilled performance. There is anxiety associated with the kinds of events that bring out superstition. The absence of control over an important outcome creates anxiety. So, even when we know on a rational level that there is no magic, superstitions can be maintained by their emotional benefit. Furthermore, once you know that a superstition applies, people don’t want to tempt fate by not employing it.”
Positive superstitions can improve confidence and reduce anxiety because they are the panacea to all that ails you. If you are shy about a job interview and you always wear lucky socks during job interviews, you are going in with a head full of confidence because you feel you are complete and fully armored for battle. This is positive and can be helpful in providing a psychological advantage over not having any superstitious behaviors at all. As we explored in previous chapters, it’s not the lucky socks so much as the way the lucky socks make us feel. These help us complete the self-fulfilling prophecy where if we think that we are (because of a superstitious behavior, anyway), then we are.
It’s the same belief that can make us proclaim, “The talent was in you all along!” It’s also in the powerful placebo effects that have stymied researchers the world over. When people believe there is a chance their actions are having an effect, they can convince themselves this effect has occurred – to the extent of actually bringing about that event.
So, should you partake in superstitions? Yes! But understand what they are and how they work. Superstitions are extremely easy to acquire, and they are likely more widespread than you realize. Our brains are fooling us into a sense of illusory control because it feels more comfortable that way. However, that comfort can distort reality in detrimental ways, or beneficial ways, depending on how we use them.
• Our luck comes in part from our behaviors and choices, and those in turn come from our mindset and the way we think.
• If luck = preparation + opportunity, and we cannot control what opportunities come our way, then it means the only way to improve our luck is to focus on being prepared to strike when a lucky chance does come our way.
• An obvious way to bring more luck to your life is to work hard, even if the results are far off or not guaranteed.
• Hard work isn’t all that matters, though. The surface area theory of luck explains that our luck is a result of both doing and telling, i.e., hard work combined with how ready we are to talk about our passion with others. You can construct your own doing/telling graph to determine where you need to put your efforts to increase your luck.
• We can also increase luck by using the methods of visualization and positive affirmations. Both have been shown scientifically to improve performance and lead to better outcomes. To work well, visualizations have to be rich and vivid, and affirmations have to be said regularly. Naturally, both work best when paired with concrete action taken towards your goals!
• Superstitious behaviors are a human tendency that evolved in the face of uncertainty, as a way to feel in control. There is no magic, but belief in the power of a superstition can be powerful in itself. The best superstitions, however, are those that encourage an internal locus of control and which don’t distort our perception of what is and isn’t under our control.