I wish I could say this story happened to a friend, but alas, it happened to me.
If you’ve never been to Las Vegas, there are actually not that many things to do, in my opinion. Correction – there are many things to do, but they all fall into a few general categories. If you’re into the nightlife, the scene there is unparalleled. But if you’re not, like me, then mostly what there is to do is spend too much money on extravagant activities or simply lose it gambling.
I chose to engage in the latter. This was during my third trip there, so I considered myself experienced in the nuances of gambling and superstitions. After all, I had won roughly $200 on my last trip to the roulette table, so I felt like I knew what I was doing.
Now, this isn’t a story about me losing a fortune. Instead, it’s a story about my naked lack of understanding about how some people treat the concept of good luck and attempt to bend the will of the universe to suit their needs. So there I was, back at the roulette table with my lucky penny in my pocket, when I sit down next to a man who smelled like a dirty laundry hamper, and that’s putting it mildly.
He was dressed in a suit, and his hair looked clean and non-greasy. So, what was happening here? What odd situation did I find myself in at this roulette table? I must have made some sort of face in reaction to the smell, because the man apologetically smiled and told me that he was sorry for the smell, and that it was attributable to his lucky socks. He pulled up his pant legs and showed me a pair of ratty, beige socks riddled with holes, and which didn’t appear to have any elastic left in them. The socks probably started as white but became beige through years of wear and lack of washing.
Before placing our bets, the man sheepishly grinned and said, “Last washed eight years ago. Gotta keep that luck juice!”
At that moment, I suddenly knew that my good luck charms and rituals paled compared to what was happening in the world. I left shortly thereafter.
The Science of Being Lucky — good luck, being lucky, and avoiding bad luck — examines humanity’s curious tendency to want to feel included in what their life has in store for them. Think about it this way: Is it more comforting to have a steering wheel appear to change the car’s direction, or have no steering wheel at all and suddenly you are headed straight at a wall?
Call it fate, or “being in the right place at the right time,” we all have our pet theories about possible cheat codes for the universe, and how to win whatever game it is we’re playing – big or small. And we all want to avoid that sinking feeling that we’ve somehow taken a wrong step or caused a potential lucky break to slip through our fingers. Whatever luck is, we want it on our side. It seemingly has the ability to create the life we want, or leave us in ruins. If we’re in the right place at the right time, perhaps we’ll run into that one person who can make a huge difference in our career. Haven’t all the celebrities and entrepreneurs told that story?
Is luck just another word for cosmic fate that we are born with, or is it something that is manipulated by good luck charms like unwashed socks or avoiding black cats? To put it more succinctly, is there a certain way we can act, in practical terms, that will make us more susceptible to better outcomes, and what we might consider better luck? Some people would find the very question preposterous – and then secretly wonder what the answer is.
Luckily, the results are in, and it’s been proven that luck is a trait that can be engineered and manufactured. It has nothing to do with four leaf clovers or broken mirrors and everything to do with changing the way we imagine the concept of luck. Thankfully, it’s got nothing to do with “luck juice” and unwashed socks!
Is this book going to help you become luckier and lead what appears to be a semi-charmed life? If you mean that it will lead you to more beneficial situations in every walk of life, then yes. After all, that’s what we’re really after with luck, isn’t it?
There are many instances of luck in the field of science, from the notion that an apple fell onto Isaac Newton’s head, prompting him to investigate the concept of gravity, to the invention of Viagra, which was originally supposed to be a heart medication.
The case study I want to focus on is the development and subsequent discovery of lysergic acid diethylamide, otherwise known as the psychedelic drug LSD. The discovery of LSD may be of dubious utility to most, but the point is that it demonstrates a path that took extreme openness and curiosity to fulfill.ert Hoffman discovered LSD in:
Hoffman was originally piggybacking on the work of fellow researcher Arthur Stoll’s initiatives, whose biggest accomplishment was to break down ergot into two distinct compounds: ergotamine and ergobasine. Following this research, Hoffman experimented with lysergic acid and ergot, eventually producing a compound he called LSD-25. As with any new compound, it was tested for medical properties, and there were none apparent except "the experimental animals became restless during the narcosis.” Ultimately, the researchers went on to say, “The new substance, however, aroused no special interest in our pharmacologists and physicians; testing was therefore discontinued.”again in:
However, his experiments and trials did not go exactly to plan. In fact, he became his first test subject inadvertently. One day while at work in his lab with close exposure to the substance, he suddenly felt so mentally uncomfortable that he had to go home for the day.
Here’s what he wrote in his diary about the experience:
“I was forced to interrupt my work in the laboratory in the middle of the afternoon and proceed home, being affected by a remarkable restlessness, combined with a slight dizziness. At home, I lay down and sank into a not unpleasant intoxicated-like condition, characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination. In a dream-like state, with eyes closed (I found the daylight to be unpleasantly glaring), I perceived an uninterrupted steam of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors.”
When he returned to work, he naturally attempted to discover what had caused such an odd reaction. It must have been something in the lab, and he concluded he had likely ingested a small amount of LSD-25, likely through his fingertips. For such a small amount to cause such a massive reaction was startling, and he decided to engage in further self-experimentation to investigate the symptoms further.
Now that his intuition about LSD was showing tantalizing signs of proving justified, Hofmann decided there was only one course of action: self-experimentation. He later wrote more about his fortuitous afternoon exposure to LSD-25:
"Here the notes in my laboratory journal cease. I was able to write the last words only with great effort. By now it was already clear to me that LSD had been the cause of the remarkable experience of the previous Friday, for the altered perceptions were of the same type as before, only much more intense. I had to struggle to speak intelligibly. I asked my laboratory assistant, who was informed of the self-experiment, to escort me home. We went by bicycle, no automobile being available because of wartime restrictions on their use. On the way home, my condition began to assume threatening forms. Everything in my field of vision wavered and was distorted as if seen in a curved mirror. I also had the sensation of being unable to move from the spot. Nevertheless, my assistant later told me that we had traveled very rapidly. Finally, we arrived at home safe and sound, and I was just barely capable of asking my companion to summon our family doctor and request milk from the neighbors.
The dizziness and sensation of fainting became so strong at times that I could no longer hold myself erect, and had to lie down on a sofa. My surroundings had now transformed themselves in more terrifying ways. Everything in the room spun around, and the familiar objects and pieces of furniture assumed grotesque, threatening forms. They were in continuous motion, animated, as if driven by an inner restlessness. The lady next door, whom I scarcely recognized, brought me milk — in the course of the evening I drank more than two liters. She was no longer Mrs. R., but rather a malevolent, insidious witch with a colored mask."
Hoffman began testing the substance on animals, and he noted that animals had curious reactions similar to his. Mice began moving and walking oddly and licking everything in sight. Cats appeared to be anxious but with immense amounts of salivation. Chimpanzees were not perceptibly affected by the researchers, but other chimpanzees around the drugged chimpanzees became upset and disgusted, so the drugged chimpanzees were obviously acting in a way extremely foreign to their social norms.
And of course, LSD usage in humans results in similar symptoms. There’s a reason is it a noted psychedelic that has been reported to produce hallucinations, voices, and feelings of euphoria.
So how does the curious case of LSD exemplify the presence of luck in scientific discovery? Hoffman approached LSD in a way that all but guaranteed a lucky discovery.
Why luck matters
We tend to think of luck as something rare and unexpected, but what if it plays a predictable and recurring role in what we call success? We believe that personal characteristics like talent, hard work, resilience and so on are responsible for people’s success – and to some degree, they are. But there is always an extra element that seemingly isn’t explained by personal attributes. Author and risk analyst Nassim Taleb and economist Robert Frank believe that luck plays a bigger role than we think – that luck, in fact, is everything.eir supervisors. Meanwhile, a:
The hidden dimension of “luck”, which seems to invisibly influence our opportunities and successes, is arguably a mix of political, social and economic mechanisms of which we only see the end results – and assume randomness. Maybe, the most “successful” people in the world really are just the luckiest. Or, they’re the people who’ve learned the rules of that hidden dimension.
Alessandro Pluchino, Andrea Raspirarda and Alessio Biondo weren’t content just asking this question theoretically – they built a toy mathematical model to actually quantify this thing we call luck. The model simulated the careers of a population over 40 years. All the hypothetical people were given varying degrees of talent but the same degree of success to start. The model was run and assessed at intervals, with a “lucky event” occurring every 6 months. The results? They found that encountering a lucky event doubled success in proportion to one’s talent, and that a small number of people always ended up with the bulk of the success in any population. So, while talent was normally distributed, success was always drastically skewed. In our world, just eight men possess the wealth of the billions of people in the poorest half of the human population, so the model appears to replicate reality!
From the paper Pluchino, Raspirarda and Alessio published:
“It is very well known that intelligence (or, more in general, talent and personal qualities) exhibits a Gaussian distribution among the population, whereas the distribution of wealth — often considered as a proxy of success — follows typically a power law (Pareto law), with a large majority of poor people and a very small number of billionaires. Such a discrepancy between a Normal distribution of inputs, with a typical scale (the average talent or intelligence), and the scale-invariant distribution of outputs, suggests that some hidden ingredient is at work behind the scenes. In this paper, we suggest that such an ingredient is just randomness. In particular, our simple agent-based model shows that, if it is true that some degree of talent is necessary to be successful in life, almost never the most talented people reach the highest peaks of success, being overtaken by averagely talented but sensibly luckier individuals.”
The biggest finding? Initial talent did not predict success. In fact, it had nothing to do with it. Talent allowed people to exploit opportunities that emerged by luck, but talent alone was insufficient. In other words, mediocre but lucky won out over talented but unlucky. If you’ve ever read a celebrity magazine, this comes as no surprise…
The results of this study have spurred interesting questions around meritocracy and how to build our society to make the best use of real talent and potential. The authors are especially interested in how funding can change the luck landscape and tip the scales. But what should we make of the findings? In the following chapters, we’ll be exploring how to maximize our chances of a “lucky event” and how to leverage the hidden rules and laws governing the distribution of this luck. If the secret ingredient is randomness, is there a way to invite more of it into our lives? If improving your raw talent and merit is not what results in success, then what does? For now, it’s enough to note that luck is not merely something nice to have on top of a sound strategy for success – it is basically the only strategy!
Luck or hard work?
Warren Buffett, easily considered one of the world’s most successful individuals, understands the role of luck. He calls it the “Ovarian Lottery.” Whether you are born male or female, in America or Afghanistan, to rich or poor parents, “it’s the most important thing that's ever going to happen to you in your life. It's going to determine way more than what school you go to, how hard you work, all kinds of things.”
But what about Croatian man Frano Selak? He’s been called both the luckiest and unluckiest man in the world, with an astonishing number of near-death experiences. First, he was rescued from a train wreck when 17 others died. On the only plane trip he took, he was blown out of a malfunctioning hatch… only to land on a haystack and survive. The plane crashed, and 19 people died. He survived a bus crash that killed four with only minor scrapes. He survived not one but two car crashes. Shortly after his 73rd birthday, he won the equivalent of a million dollars in the lottery. It’s hard to look at Selak’s story and see anything but luck – surely he wasn’t responsible for any of this?ompletely different story. In:
In no time, the team had synthesized an effective antimalarial drug.
Youyou faced obstacle after obstacle in her research, but she pushed on, even infecting herself with malaria – and curing it – at a time she was prevented from conducting trials. It was a decade later when her work was finally released. Today, the drug has been administered more than a billion times, and has saved the lives of millions. Youyou received the Nobel prize and a host of other awards.
But she had started without a postgrad degree, without research experience, and without being a member of any academies. She was diligent, hardworking and methodical. Was her success down to luck or hard work? And what makes her story different from Frano Selak’s? The answer is that luck and hard work play a role, each interacting in interesting ways.
Luck may be more relevant in an absolute sense, while hard work matters in a relative sense. To explain: luck can bestow the right genes, good timing and beneficial connections, which can set you apart from others. This is like winning the lottery. But hard work distinguishes you from those who have the same amount of luck as you. How do you compare with other lottery winners?
It’s pure luck to be born in a rich country, but hard work will determine how you compare to others who were also blessed with that fortune. The larger and more extravagant the success, the more likely it was luck! In other words, being a good musician is down to hard work, but being the biggest rock star of the decade is likely sheer luck. Taleb summarizes this by saying, “Mild success can be explainable by skills and labor. Wild success is attributable to variance.”
So, again we see that it’s not hard work OR luck, but a bit of both, depending on the scale of success we’re talking about. It would be wrong to assume that winning the genetic lottery was a result of your personal efforts. Still, at the same time, if you’re from a family of athletically gifted people, but only you found success as an athlete, that is probably because of your hard work.
Another way of thinking of it is to imagine that hard work determines the shape of our success trajectory in life, but we are all embarking from different starting points (luck). It is possible to overcome bad luck, and it’s possible to lose any head start you were blessed with.
Luck is out of our control, yes. But we can learn to understand it and work with it, and optimize on the fortune that does come our way. Luck, as they say, is what happens when opportunity meets preparation. We can control our effort, essentially increasing our “luck surface area” and making it so that when a lucky break flies along, we’re in the best position to catch it.
• Luck may play a bigger role in our success than we think. By examining what we consider lucky breaks, serendipity and fortuitous events, we can better handle the invisible forces that favor some and not others.
• Research has made surprising findings, i.e., that it may be better to be mediocre in skills but lucky than to be highly talented yet unlucky. Mathematical models have tended to show the irrelevance of skill and talent, and emphasize the fact that randomness plays a big part in what we consider success.
• In the case of the discovery of LSD (and many other scientific advances), we can see that luck plays a surprising role.
• Luck may play a role in an absolute sense in determining the hand we’re dealt in what Warren Buffett calls the “Ovarian Lottery” – where we’re born, our genes, and so on. But hard work does matter, and may factor in a more relative sense, i.e., it helps us distinguish ourselves from others who have been similarly lucky.
• Luck and hard work play a part. We cannot control luck, but we can understand how it works and position ourselves accordingly, so that we’re ready to strike when and if opportunity does come our way.