How To Create Your Own Luck

Luck--in business and in life--isn't always something that happens to you, it's also something you can find and help create.

Failed actors rarely give career advice. "The advice business is a monopoly run by survivors," writes David McRaney of You Are Not So Smart. The chefs who failed don't have a line out the door of their restaurant. The entrepreneurs who launched, failed, and didn't try again don't end up on the cover of Fast Company.

To McRaney, the problem with the stories of the super productive, super creative, and super successful is that they miss half the equation:

You must remind yourself that when you start to pick apart winners and losers, successes and failures, the living and dead, that by paying attention to one side of that equation you are always neglecting the other. If you are thinking about opening a restaurant because there are so many successful restaurants in your hometown, you are ignoring the fact the only successful restaurants survive to become examples. Maybe on average 90 percent of restaurants in your city fail in the first year. You can’t see all those failures because when they fail they also disappear from view. As Nassim Taleb writes in his book The Black Swan, "The cemetery of failed restaurants is very silent."

While the survivors are very, very loud, as they supply neat narratives of How They Did It, the satisfying movement of cause and effect. If you (get up early/stay up late/network hard) you will be a great (entrepreneur/artist/writer). If you think that one input creates one output, you're employing linear thinking, in a form of what Taleb calls the narrative fallacy, where we reduce the messiness of life into cleanly, consumable stories of how to live.

But success is nonlinear: we can't know how something will turn out at its outset. Not even Google can predict how employees will perform at the point of hire. As David Lee observes, the savviest entrepreneurs cooperate with the unpredictability: when Jeff Bezos is talking about going down "blind alleys" that turn into "broad avenues," he's really talking about exploring unproven trajectories can yield high-flying business--like Amazon Web Services, the cloud arm that's now eclipsing bookselling in sales.

You could say that Bezos is lucky, but it might be more accurate to say that he's cooperating with chance.

How to create your own luck.

Psychologist Richard Wiseman studies luck. Over a decade, he followed the lives of 400 subjects across professions who described themselves as lucky or unlucky. McRaney, again, provides a synopsis:

In one study, he asked subjects to look through a newspaper and count the number of photographs inside. The people who labeled themselves as generally unlucky took about two minutes to complete the task. The people who considered themselves as generally lucky took an average of a few seconds. Wiseman had placed a block of text printed in giant, bold letters on the second page of the newspaper that read, “Stop counting. There are 43 photographs in this newspaper.” Deeper inside, he placed a second block of text just as big that read, “Stop counting, tell the experimenter you have seen this and win $250.” The people who believed they were unlucky usually missed both.

So luck--in business and in life--isn't something that happens to you, it's something that you look out for, and in looking out for it, participate in the creation of.

Prof. Richard Weisman: "For thousands of years we've had very superstitious thoughts about luck, but the reality is, your thoughts create the luck in your life"

How so? It's your patterns of behavior--the actions and reactions you have with the events and people you interact with in life. Luck isn't "magical," Wiseman tells Skeptical Inquirer magazine, it's "rational": you can, with reason, better work with the weird, opaque, endlessly multifaceted probabilities that life presents us.

Wiseman, thankfully, has supplied us a cheatsheet for having a more productive relationship with chance. According to his research:

Lucky people maximize chance opportunities: They create, notice, and act on opportunities--like by meeting lots of people and being open to new experiences.

They listen to their hunches: And practices like meditation allow them to clear their mind of thoughts and act more quickly.

They expect good fortune: Anxiety precludes you from seeing possibilities, a calm optimism allows you to spot them.

And allow us to add a fourth: They're resilient. The more funding you have, the more "runway" the startup has to "pivot" from. The more you're determined that's "it's going to work," the longer you'll stick around until it does work. Grit predicts success. That success is born of courting serendipity.

Hat tip: Vianney Lecroart

[Image: Flickr user Thomas Leth-Olsen]

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20 Comments

  • Rohit Biddappa

    Agree totally. As an entrepreneur I don't believe in luck and agree one needs to be open minded and seize opportunities.

  • Adam

    It seems like every time Fast Company takes me away from Facebook it's because of an article written by Drake. Just want to give credit where credit is due and say thanks for the articles Drake. Love the themes of your articles as they always relate to me or my life in some way. Your articles always have depth to them.

  • Susan RoAne

    Dr. Wiseman's work provides a solid framework of those who appear
    "lucky". I discovered 8 traits/skills/actions that are counterintuitive
    among those who were featured in How To Create Your Own Luck (Wiley)
    because they had success; often after failures or complications.
    One
    of the most counterintuitive is that they said "yes" when they wanted
    to say "no". They put themselves in situations that had possibilities,
    opportunities and were open to "you never know" moments of serendipity.

  • Adams

    To McRaney, the problem with the stories of the super productive, super creative, and super successful is that they miss half the equation:

  • Lisa - Good.Co

    Great rundown of what it takes to be 'lucky'. I don't consider myself particularly lucky or unlucky, but I try to stay positive and to look for the lessons to be found in less-than-ideal outcomes. Recently, I tried imparting this hard-earned wisdom to a friend who refused to see how helpful practiced optimism can be. I think the stumbling block in that communication stemmed from a lack of emphasis on the work it takes to look at the world this way. If you weren't born seeing sunshine and the silver lining in every cloud, it takes time and effort to recondition how you react to failing. My motto is that the only real failure is not learning from your mistakes, and that includes never really labeling anything a failure, because at its heart nearly every experience contains the positive result that is personal growth.
    Thanks for the interesting and helpful article!

  • Adams

    Psychologist Richard Wiseman studies luck. Over a decade, he followed the lives of 400 subjects across professions who described themselves as lucky or unlucky. McRaney, again, provides a synopsis:

  • Charles

    You must remind yourself that when you start to pick apart winners and losers, successes and failures, the living and dead

  • Livinwithlucky

    2 years ago when my husbands marketing company was liquidated we had to start up again. I am not an entrepreneur but he is . No matter what has been thrown at us in the form of rejection from banks for finance or rejections from customers or tenders where we have poured our heart and souls into the process he still sees the positive in everything ! I have floundered at many hurdles ! I would always have said my husband was a lucky man - but having worked with him over the last while I can see how he has created his own luck .Wisemans' cheat sheet definetly rings true for me . I have even started trying to change my habits and you know what I think I am also getting Lucky !!!!

  • Adams

    You must remind yourself that when you start to pick apart winners and losers, successes and failures, the living and dead, that by paying attention to one side of that equation you are always neglecting the other. If you are thinking about opening a restaurant because there are so many successful restaurants in your hometown, you are ignoring the fact the only successful restaurants survive to become examples. Maybe on average 90 percent of restaurants in your city fail in the first year. You can’t see all those failures because when they fail they also disappear from view. As Nassim Taleb writes in his book The Black Swan, "The cemetery of failed restaurants is very silent."

  • Adams

    So luck--in business and in life--isn't something that happens to you, it's something that you look out for, and in looking out for it, participate in the creation of.

  • Adams

    In one study, he asked subjects to look through a newspaper and count the number of photographs inside. The people who labeled themselves as generally unlucky took about two minutes to complete the task. The people who considered themselves as generally lucky took an average of a few seconds. Wiseman had placed a block of text printed in giant, bold letters on the second page of the newspaper that read, “Stop counting. There are 43 photographs in this newspaper.” Deeper inside, he placed a second block of text just as big that read, “Stop counting, tell the experimenter you have seen this and win $250.” The people who believed they were unlucky usually missed both.