“You gotta ask yourself one question. ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?”sked this pivotal question in:
Over the course of ten years, Wiseman interviewed hundreds of people about the ways luck factored into their daily lives, and numerous patterns emerged. Eventually, Wiseman detailed his conclusions in the book The Luck Factor, in which he reveals that while his subjects had almost no insights into the causes of their luck, they displayed consistent patterns of behavior that were directly responsible for their good or bad fortune.
We’ve covered some of these results earlier in the book, and this chapter builds on the narrative of certain traits and factors that typically accompany the presence of luck. Again, this isn’t to say that doing X or Y literally causes you to win at Blackjack or meet that special someone, only that it makes some hidden, intermediate steps more possible. It’s these steps that ultimately lead to fortunate outcomes.
Wiseman conducted many controlled experiments that allowed him to observe “luck” in action. In one experiment, he simply asked volunteers to walk up the street to a specific coffee shop and order a cup of coffee. Unbeknownst to his subjects, he had left money on the ground in their path and had positioned a well-connected businessman inside the shop. A young man who described himself as lucky discovered the money and pocketed it on his way to the shop, and randomly struck up a conversation with the businessman while waiting for his beverage.
A different volunteer, who self-described as unlucky, stepped right over the cash and kept to herself while at the coffee shop. By now, you can probably spot the behaviors and attitudes that led to such different outcomes when provided with roughly the same environmental stimuli in each case.
The vastly different experiences of the volunteers demonstrate Wiseman’s notion that some personality types are luckier because they create scenarios that maximize opportunities, thereby increasing their luck. Attitude alone cannot change the fact of what’s on the floor or who is in the coffee shop, but it sure does open you up to these details in a useful way.
Each volunteer was presented with identical opportunities, but their individual mindsets dictated their course of action. Had the unlucky woman widened her focus just a bit, she would have picked up the money and maybe enjoyed a free cup of coffee. But with her unlucky mindset, she didn’t expect the unusual bonus, didn’t look for it, and missed it completely. Likewise, her unwillingness to chat up a stranger while waiting for coffee could have cost her a valuable connection.
The primary difference between these two volunteers, says Wiseman, is that the “lucky” man was open to chance opportunities, thereby making him likelier to notice the unexpected in his environment. He wasn’t actually any more fortunate or blessed than the unlucky person.
This openness, similar to the trait described in a previous chapter, is the first of four factors determining luck.
Be Open to New Experiences
Lucky people are open to new possibilities. This can be a tricky attitude to pin down, but such people tend to be somewhat relaxed about life, adopting the general attitude that everything is all right. Wiseman found that they have lower levels of anxiety than their unlucky counterparts, which frees them to not only expect good things, but to look for them actively. Think about what makes you anxious. At its basic level, anxiety is a question of control – feeling as though you don’t have it, or as though you need to work hard to get it back. If you imagine that anxiety and attitude of control is a narrowing of perception, you can see that staying optimistically open-ended is a question of attention and awareness. The “unlucky” woman who walked past the money on the floor? Who knows what stressful ruminations she might have been distracted by at that moment, which caused her to figuratively close her eyes to the luck right in front of her?
According to the professor, unlucky people are frequently stuck in routines. These routines focus on the end goals versus the process or journey – and so they miss the journey, which is frequently where interesting new opportunities show up! They have a tendency to hyper-focus on accomplishing specific tasks, and as a result, they are blinded to other possibilities. The old saying, “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you always get,” is applicable here. It’s as though we cling so tightly to what we think should happen, that we are unable to see what could happen, or what is happening that’s actually better. Remaining within your comfort zone assures that new experiences are unlikely to come your way, and if they do, you are apt to miss them.
The takeaway here is to relax your focus and be open to unexpected possibilities. Anything can turn into something if you allow it to.
Listen to Your Gut
The second factor affecting luck is to listen to your intuition. Lucky people are more willing to take a risk by following their gut instinct – which they are able to listen to because they are more receptive, open0minded and relaxed about what is unfolding in the present moment.
However, it’s not just about hunches and feelings – the willingness to take action may be the key. Unlucky people are usually reticent to act until they can prove the move is sound. They get stuck in research mode, or suffer from “analysis paralysis.” Born of anxiety, analysis paralysis is the inability to act swiftly or decisively and to overthink ideas or situations, often passing up good opportunities in the process. Frequently, by the time a situation has been thoroughly examined, the window in which to has passed. And you’re still anxious.
Wiseman suspects that our brains are wired in such a way that intuition represents a pattern detected by our body and brain, but that our conscious mind has not yet recognized. Our lifetime of experiences and interactions are stored in the pathways of the brain, and it identifies and responds to familiar stimuli much faster than we can perceive. Trusting a hunch frequently yields a greater benefit than creating an exhaustive list of pros and cons. Lucky people realize that if they have a strong gut feeling, it is often worth their time to stop and consider it. They’ve learnt not only to trust themselves, but also to not let the possibility of failure completely deter them from taking occasional risks. This is all to say that our gut hunches and intuition are far smarter than we realize, and by listening to them, we put ourselves in situations that turn out to be fortuitous and lucky.
Case in point: Apple co-founder Steve Jobs takes a calligraphy class.
On a whim, college dropout Jobs decided to take a calligraphy class, where he learned about serif and sans-serif fonts, varying the amount of space between letter combinations, and what makes beautiful typography an art form. The class had no practical application in his life until ten years later, when he was designing the first Macintosh computer. The Mac incorporated multiple typefaces and proportionally spaced fonts, revolutionary concepts that have since become industry standards.
Said Jobs, “Of course, it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later. So, you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.” You can imagine that from an anxious, control-prone mindset, a calligraphy class would have seemed like a stupid idea, and the fact that its usefulness only became relevant ten years down the line would have frustrated someone who was stressed and wanted innovative solutions right now.
He followed his instinct to learn about the elements of what makes a beautiful product, which eventually became Apple’s hallmark and claim to business immortality – beautiful design and functionality. There may not have been an immediate payoff for Jobs’ relative gamble, and he may not have even been fully conscious of his reasoning. But it showed that his vague inkling that elements of calligraphy would be central to his career was correct.
Lucky people are certain that their futures are full of good fortune. Rose-colored glasses are not just about being whimsical and unrealistic, though. Though lucky people tend to be optimistic and to hope for the best, this attitude gives lucky people more resilience and “grit,” says Wiseman. In other words, when people hold the belief that things will work out, they are apt to persevere.
Perseverance in turn builds resilience, which allows a person to hold fast, giving more time for events to work out in their favor. Optimistic people look on the bright side no matter the outcome, and as a result, they have less anxiety and tend to discover unrealized opportunities in misfortune. They understand that they are capable of handling what life throws at them, and this confidence allows them to have a more relaxed attitude because suddenly, not every little thing is a life-or-death matter. When things don’t go as expected, they don’t throw their hands in the air and give up, interpreting the result as proof that that universe is out to get them somehow. Lucky people, instead, are the ones most likely to say, “when one door closes, another opens” – and believe it.
Finally, they are also more willing to reach out for help and support during times of crisis, which lowers their anxiety level and provides others with new opportunities to utilize their own life experiences and expertise. And as we saw earlier, reaching out to share your joys and tribulations helps you build valuable connections with others. Those relationships can be the very channels through which luck finds its way to you. Given the opening, people usually love to help, and these types of positive interactions benefit all the involved parties, once again increasing the luck factor.
That doesn’t mean that lucky people don’t experience setbacks — it just means that their attitude toward the outcome differs greatly from that of the unlucky. The experiences of Chuck Noland in the movie Castaway come to mind. As a successful Federal Express systems engineer, Chuck travels the world resolving productivity issues at FedEx terminals until his plane crashes in the Pacific Ocean. As the only survivor, Chuck is forced to adapt to life on a remote island for four years until being rescued.
Throughout the film, Chuck exhibits positive expectations despite his grim circumstances. He continually hopes for the best while demonstrating resilience in preparing for the worst. He learns how to spearfish for food and creates conveniences for himself from the FedEx cargo that washes up on the beach. He even fashions a buddy, Wilson, out of a volleyball, thus creating “human” interaction for himself and keeping a lively discussion of ideas and plans alive in the face of a bleak future.
Here, elements of hope, optimism, and the choice to be happy contribute to luck. It’s no wonder many philosophers have named hope as the most important trait a person can possess.
Transform Bad Luck into Good
One specific technique employed by the character of Chuck Noland is “counterfactual thinking.” According to psychologists, the degree to which you think that something is fortunate (or not) is the degree to which you imagine alternatives that are better (or worse). Again, it’s a question of interpretation and perception.
In other words, lucky people always look for the silver lining. In Noland’s case, he reasoned that he could have died in the plane crash, or been eaten by sharks. In his mind, he was lucky to have survived, even if that meant living alone on an island. Therefore, one of the key characteristics for transforming bad luck into good is the ability to face adversity and take control of the situation, not be buried by it. Trust that life has prepared you to handle whatever comes along. Or, if a situation is outside your experience, know that others can help and be willing to accept their support. Actively look for the unseen opportunity in misfortune.
Professor Wiseman gives this example: Unlucky people say, “I can’t believe I’ve been in another car accident.” Lucky people say, “Yes, I had a car accident, but I wasn’t killed.” The point is that both ways of thinking are unconscious and automatic. It would never occur to the unlucky people to see it a different way. This gives them the ability to keep on moving and adapt.
Make Your Own Luck
Examining Wiseman’s four factors of luck, it is clear that mindset is the key factor.
The way you perceive the events of your life determines whether or not you feel lucky. Optimism, perseverance, and resilience are significant characteristics that differentiate good luck from bad. A relaxed, open attitude toward life is another contributing factor. Professor Wiseman notes, “Lucky people create, notice, and act upon the chance opportunities in their lives.”
Create — notice — act. These qualities are the hallmarks of people with good luck. Create scenarios where you are interacting with and meeting new people. If activities like networking don’t come naturally, attach yourself to someone who knows how to work a room, and ask them to include you. When someone mentions a topic that interests you, maximize the opportunity to talk with them about it. Notice the myriad opportunities that continually surround you. If you are frantic or stressed or goal-driven, learn how to slow down and relax to avoid missing the available prospects.
Make space in your busy brain for new experiences. Act quickly when your instinct sends you a strong signal. Pay attention, but not too hard. Don’t overthink it — trust that your unconscious has detected a pattern and is urging you to make an effective, beneficial decision.
Professor Wiseman makes one final distinction — there is a difference between chance and luck. He reminds us that chance events are like winning the lottery. They are events over which we have no control other than buying a ticket. When people say that they consistently experience good fortune, he believes, it has to be because of something they are doing. We have far more control over events than we perceive. You might believe that 50% of life is due to chance events. It is not — perhaps 10% is attributed solely to chance. That other 40% you think you have no influence over at all is actually defined by the way you think, embodied in these four factors and traits. Imagine what your life would look like if it was 40% luckier.
How to strengthen the four factors
In the following chapter, we’re going to take a closer look at concrete steps to hack your way to better luck, but first, let’s explore some ways to bring a little of Wiseman’s four factors into our own personalities.
If you read the above descriptions of the quintessential lucky person and thought, “Oh no, sounds like the opposite of who I am!” then don’t worry: there’s a lot we can do to gently shift any mindset. It starts with not assuming that you are doomed to have an unlucky mindset! Instead, notice how your perspective gently changes when you think instead, “It’s such a good thing that I’m learning about this now. I’m pretty lucky to have the chance to make a change.”
Avoid the temptation to relish your bad luck and make it a part of your identity. This tendency often comes from a fear of change and the unknown.
To increase openness, try meditating
Fortune favors the prepared mind. But it also favors the relaxed, flexible mind, or what Buddhists call a “beginner’s mind.” Nothing could be better for loosening and expanding our perceptions than meditating. Even if you think you hate meditating or can’t see how it applies to creating more luck, take the idea of starting a meditation practice itself as your first exercise in being open and receptive: why not say yes to something new? Who knows where it might lead?
You don’t need to sit on a cushion or burn incense. Simply close your eyes and sit or lie somewhere quiet and undisturbed. Anchor in the present moment by engaging with each of your senses. Notice sights, sounds, smells and so on. The important word here is notice – you are not judging these stimuli, or interpreting them, or deciding whether you like them or not. You’re just noticing. You don’t follow any one thread over another. You don’t “try” to do anything in particular; you just sit and be.
Such an exercise widens your perception – not to mention it relaxes you! No, sitting down to contemplate nothing in particular in this way won’t directly make you luckier, but it will loosen you up, and make possible a kind of creative and open-ended way of looking at the world. If you can practice just experiencing something without trying to grasp it or avoid it or tell a story about it, you’re more likely to just perceive it for what it is. And that makes you more creative and a much better problem solver. When you’re relaxed, you’re more likely to say yes to things, follow your nose, and think out of the box.
In the spirit of pure and open-ended perception, you can also foster the trait of openness to new experiences by… well, trying new experiences. Agree to something without thinking too hard about it first. Like Steve Jobs, sign up for a class or new hobby that you only have the dimmest inclination towards. Don’t analyze the inclination too much or judge it or yourself – just go with it.
To improve your intuition, build self-trust
Most people have pretty good intuition. The trouble is that they don’t trust their intuition when it appears and speaks to them. Something pops up inside, and they think, “I should say something” or “I should look into that.” And then they don’t. Blame it on fear, but many of us constantly doubt our gut feelings and hunches, and end up second guessing ourselves. Instead, we trust the opinions of others or assume that we’re only qualified to have an opinion if we do loads of research beforehand.
While it’s great to be prudent and cautious at times, it can also mean that we are less spontaneous, less relaxed, and far less open to whatever happens. In other words, less lucky.
One great way to build more trust in your own in-built intuition is to develop confidence in yourself. With confidence, you value your own ideas and opinions, and learn to respect and acknowledge your own limits, desires and feelings about things. If you have a feeling that something isn’t right and that you shouldn’t pursue it, you trust that feeling and listen to it. Without confidence in yourself, however, you’re more likely to say, “you’re being silly, there’s no reason to think that,” and then discount your intuition.
Now, your intuition might not always be right. Often human beings make quick assumptions that, on second look, are nothing more than bias and guesswork. But that’s OK – we are only interested in cultivating a lucky mindset. If our intuition happens to be right once in a while and we’re lucky because of it, so much the better, but the main benefit is the change that happens inside us when we relax and ourselves to “go with the flow.”
There are plenty of ways to develop confidence in your own perceptions and estimations:
• As counterintuitive as it sounds, create an ultra-confident alter-ego that is you, only the best possible version. Then, try to see the world through their eyes. For example, you’ve been asked to take on a brand new project at work at the drop of a hat. What would your alter-ego, who has complete faith in themselves, do?
• Develop greater emotional awareness. As often as you can remember, pause and ask yourself what you’re feeling in each moment. Try to put words to inner sensations, sense them in your body, and notice how your actions influence these feelings. Just as with meditation, don’t judge or interpret the emotions you notice. Try not to rush to fix or change anything. Just give emotions space to be what they are. The more you know what you feel, the more clearly you’ll know what you want, and the more you’ll be able to trust your impulses instead of doubting yourself.
• If self-doubt is a problem, learn to take other people’s opinions with a pinch of salt. Don’t allow the perspectives of others to drown out your own – and that includes cultural attitudes and conventions, too. Get into the habit of tuning others out and asking yourself what you feel, want and think. Other people’s views are important, but make sure you don’t allow their criticism, interpretations or agendas to color your own intuition. Advice can be invaluable – but not always!
• Finally, occasionally spend time alone so you can get to know yourself. Use a journal to explore everything that makes you who you are. The better grasp you have on yourself as a unique person, the more anchored you’ll be in your own appraisals, and the next time your intuition speaks, even if it’s only a whisper, you’ll feel confident and relaxed enough to trust where it’s pointing.
To improve positive expectations, keep a gratitude journal
One study Wiseman did was to ask the self-proclaimed unlucky people to keep a luck journal:
“We asked that at the end of each day, they write down the most positive thing that happened or most positive thought they had that day. Or, in some cases, something negative that used to happen that no longer happens, or at very least some thought of gratitude.”
You can imagine the results. The participants very quickly started to shift their perspective, and experience that positive and hopeful frame of mind more associated with lucky people. They reported being able to see more opportunities and good things in their lives – the very same lives they felt so negative about before writing in their journals.
Looking for the silver lining is like training your perspective to see the good in things. You learn not to make the same mistakes, and you don’t dwell on them or beat yourself up over anything. Remembering the power of a self-fulfilling prophesy, use gratitude to inoculate yourself against further negativity and prime your brain to look for the positive. You shift your attention from what isn’t working, what’s wrong, and what’s out of your control to what is working, what is really quite fortunate already, and what you can change. At the very least, you may have a sudden realization of just how lucky you actually already are but never quite noticed!
A gratitude journal has all these positive benefits (and Wiseman is not the only one to have discovered them), but it will also boost your mood more generally and bring you into a relaxed, receptive state of mind. Basically, it feels good. And we’ve seen that when you feel good, you tend to find that positively reflected back at you from the world in general.
A gratitude or luck journal can take many forms. Do what feels natural and don’t overthink it. You could try simply listing five things that you enjoyed or are thankful for that day, no matter how small. You could make a point of writing down descriptions of the things that made you happy that day, or all the ways that you are already lucky. If you notice yourself complaining or feeling passive or hard done by, pause, become aware of your perspective, and see if you can challenge yourself to think of something a little more positive or at least open-ended.
As in Wiseman’s study, all you may have some days is the recognition that a negative thing is no longer as bad as it once was. Bring some humor to it. If you break a leg, laugh it off and consider yourself lucky for not breaking the other one, too.
To transform bad luck into good luck, adopt a growth mindset
Carol Dweck was the first to coin the term “growth mindset” to describe the attitude that most accompanied genuine learning. She argued that when people believed that growth and learning were possible, their entire outlook changed. They take challenges, obstacles and failures in their stride and don’t give up, but instead look for the upside, the lesson or the insight. Compare this to a fixed mindset, which sees character traits like intelligence (or, in our case, luck) as fixed and unchanging. If nothing can be done to improve, then why bother? In fact, with a fixed mindset challenges, obstacles and failures are all avoided – along with the growth they come with. Failures are taken personally, and the ego takes a dent.
As you can see, there are parallels between a serendipity or lucky mindset, an internal locus of control and a growth mindset. Unlucky people, on the other hand, all share the same cluster of attitudes that we can describe as an external locus of control or a fixed, unlucky mindset.
Importantly, people with a growth or fixed mindset respectively don’t experience different levels of failure or success – their difference rests purely in their interpretation of those events. If you want to become better at reframing bad luck as good luck, a growth mindset could be just what you need.
One key way that the growth mindset manifests itself is in its attitude towards failure. We can imagine that failure is akin to bad luck or unfortunate changes in fortune for our purposes. Counterfactual thinking will definitely help you turn a negative perspective on its head, but when you’re in the middle of some unfortunate experience, it can be hard to see things differently.
Try the technique of accepting every bit of bad luck as though it is really a gift. With a growth mindset, we can see failure and challenge and the best teachers of all. We can also use it to see that seemingly bad luck today is just the seed of better luck tomorrow. This isn’t some feel-good positive thinking exercise – genuinely turn the event or situation over in your mind until you can find the hidden value. The thing is, lucky people tend to do this naturally. They have indomitable spirits that always seem to be assuming that the best is just around the corner.
If you genuinely can’t see any good in an unlucky event, don’t assume there isn’t one. Just conclude that you can’t see it yet, or that it’s still busy unfolding. This often is exactly the case – how many times have you heard people retroactively describe their trials and dark times as really the greatest things to ever happen to them?
Could an unlucky event actually be necessary or useful down the line? Could it be teaching you something or laying the groundwork for something better? Sometimes, you can shift your perspective by literally just changing the words you use. Instead of calling something a problem, call it a challenge, or simply say it’s “interesting”! If you like, laugh it all off and say you’re glad that life always throws something new your way to keep you on your feet. If you find yourself complaining, practice tacking on the phrase, “How lucky I am to…” and complete your thought. It may feel silly, but notice just how radically your energy and focus change.
“I’m late, and this bus is stuck in traffic, and I’m sick to death of it…”
“How lucky I am to be late and stuck in traffic…” If you say this to yourself, the thought shines a light on all the ways it might, in fact, be lucky to be in your predicament. Why not? Pull out a book, have a little nap, or strike up a conversation with that interesting person a few seats over.
• Study findings shared in Wiseman’s book The Luck Factor point to four factors that are responsible for a mindset most prone to luck. While these attitudes and traits don’t literally cause luck in themselves, they do lay the groundwork and make us more able to capitalize on luck when it comes our way.
• The first factor is openness to new experiences, which means being aware and perceptive of lucky turns and emerging events in your environment, rather than shut out to novel possibilities. We can increase this factor in ourselves by practicing non-judgment and heightened awareness during meditation.
• The second factor is to listen to your gut and follow intuitions rather than getting bogged down in self-doubt, second guessing and analysis paralysis. We can improve this factor by building our self-trust. By spending time alone to figure out your own thoughts rather than become overwhelmed by other people’s, you can develop confidence in your own appraisals.
• The third factor is to harbor positive expectations, i.e., believing that good things will come. This will build the grit and resilience needed for luck to find you. This can be developed by creating a gratitude or luck journal, to shift your focus onto the positive and train your brain to expect good things.
• The fourth factor is the ability to reframe “bad” luck as good luck. Luckiness is a question of perception, and we can reinterpret seemingly unfortunate events by adopting a growth mindset. This will allow us to see the lesson in mistakes, employ counterfactual thinking and accept the hidden value in any outcome.
• With the above factors in place, we can not only notice luck around us more easily, but we can start to create the conditions for its unfolding.