"It's better to be lucky than smart." "You make your own luck in life." "Some folks are just born lucky." In an environment marked by rising tensions and diminished expectations, most of us could use a little luck — at our companies, in our careers, with our investments. Richard Wiseman thinks that he can help you find some.
Wiseman, 37, is head of a psychology research department at the University of Hertfordshire in England. For the past eight years, he and his colleagues at the university's Perrott-Warrick Research Unit have studied what makes some people lucky and others not. After conducting thousands of interviews and hundreds of experiments, Wiseman now claims that he's cracked the code. Luck isn't due to kismet, karma, or coincidence, he says. Instead, lucky folks — without even knowing it — think and behave in ways that create good fortune in their lives. In his new book, The Luck Factor: Changing Your Luck, Changing Your Life: The Four Essential Principles (Miramax, 2003), Wiseman reveals four approaches to life that turn certain people into luck magnets. (And, as luck would have it, he tells the rest of us how to improve our own odds.)
Wiseman's four principles turn out to be slightly more polished renditions of some of the self-help canon's greatest hits. One thing Wiseman discovered, for example, was that when things go awry, the lucky "turn bad luck into good" by seeing how they can squeeze some benefit from the misfortune. (Lemonade, anyone?) The lucky also "expect good fortune," which no doubt has Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking, grinning in his grave.
But if these insights aren't exactly groundbreaking, neither are they wrongheaded. For instance, Wiseman found that lucky people are particularly open to possibility. Why do some people always seem to find fortune? It's not dumb luck. Unlike everyone else, they see it. "Most people are just not open to what's around them," Wiseman says. "That's the key to it."
Wiseman began his career as a teenage magician who joined London's prestigious Magic Circle society and journeyed to Hollywood to perform for thousands. "Magic is very good training for seeing the world from somebody else's perspective," he says. Wiseman's latest research makes several forays into areas where most scholars rarely tread: He has investigated the psychological underpinnings of magic, the dynamics of deception, and the psychology of the paranormal. In 2001, he achieved international notoriety conducting a yearlong search for the world's funniest joke, testing how some 350,000 participants reacted to 40,000 jokes.
Fast Company was lucky enough to catch up with the hip and affable professor at a café overlooking London's Hyde Park.
How did a serious academic like you become interested in a squishy subject like luck?
Round about 10 years ago, I was talking to people about why they'd ended up where they'd ended up in their lives — the people they were with, the careers they were in, and so on. And the words that kept coming up were things like "luck" and "chance." People said, "I met my partner by chance." Or "I'm in this particular career because I just happened to go to this party." I knew from the psychology literature that psychologists avoided luck. They said you couldn't do science with it. So I decided to test that. I did some research that asked people, "Do you consider yourself unlucky, or lucky?"
Over time, we built up a database of about 400 people from all over the UK, all walks of life, who considered themselves especially lucky or unlucky. The people in both groups were saying, "I've no idea why this is the case; I'm just lucky" — or unlucky. But I didn't believe that for a minute. I thought there was something else going on. So in the Luck Project, we've had them take part in experiments, interviewed them, had them keep diaries — all sorts of things — trying to piece together why you'd have one group of people for whom everything would work out well and another group for whom things would be completely disastrous.
Isn't there a distinction between chance and luck?
There's a big distinction. Chance events are like winning the lottery. They're events over which we have no control, other than buying a ticket. They don't consistently happen to the same person. They may be formative events in people's lives, but they're not frequent. When people say that they consistently experience good fortune, I think that, by definition, it has to be because of something they are doing.
In other words, they make their own luck.
That's right. What I'm arguing is that we have far more control over events than we thought previously. You might say, "Fifty percent of my life is due to chance events." No, it's not. Maybe 10% is. That other 40% that you think you're having no influence over at all is actually defined by the way you think.
What are some of the ways that lucky people think differently from unlucky people?
One way is to be open to new experiences. Unlucky people are stuck in routines. When they see something new, they want no part of it. Lucky people always want something new. They're prepared to take risks and relaxed enough to see the opportunities in the first place.
How did you uncover that in your lab?
We did an experiment. We asked subjects to flip through a news-paper that had photographs in it. All they had to do was count the number of photographs. That's it. Luck wasn't on their minds, just some silly task. They'd go through, and after about three pages, there'd be a massive half-page advert saying, STOP COUNTING. THERE ARE 43 PHOTOGRAPHS IN THIS NEWSPAPER. It was next to a photo, so we knew they were looking at that area. A few pages later, there was another massive advert — I mean, we're talking big — that said, STOP COUNTING. TELL THE EXPERIMENTER YOU'VE SEEN THIS AND WIN 150 POUNDS [about $235].
For the most part, the unlucky would just flip past these things. Lucky people would flip through and laugh and say, "There are 43 photos. That's what it says. Do you want me to bother counting?" We'd say, "Yeah, carry on." They'd flip some more and say, "Do I get my 150 pounds?" Most of the unlucky people didn't notice.
But the business culture typically worships drive — setting a goal, single-mindedly pursuing it, and plowing past obstacles. Are you arguing that, to be more lucky, we need to be less focused?
This is one of the most counterintuitive ideas. We are traditionally taught to be really focused, to be really driven, to try really hard at tasks. But in the real world, you've got opportunities all around you. And if you're driven in one direction, you're not going to spot the others. It's about getting people to have various game plans running in their heads. Unlucky people, if they go to a party wanting to meet the love of their life, end up not meeting people who might become close friends or people who might help them in their careers. Being relaxed and open allows lucky people to see what's around them and to maximize what's around them.
Much of business is also about rational analysis: pulling up the spreadsheet, running the numbers, looking at the serious facts. Yet you found that lucky people rely heavily on their gut instincts.
Yes. You don't want to broadly say that whenever you get an intuitive feeling, it's right and you should go with it. But you could be missing out on a massive font of knowledge that you've built up over the years. We are amazingly good at detecting patterns. That's what our brains are set up to do.
What are some other ways you found that lucky people's minds operate differently?
They practice "counterfactual thinking." The degree to which you think that something is fortunate or not is the degree to which you generate alternatives that are better or worse.
Unlucky people say, "I can't believe I've been in another car accident." Lucky people go, "Wonderful. Yes, I had a car accident, but I wasn't killed. And I met the guy in the other car, and we got on really well, and there might be a relationship there." What's interesting is that both ways of thinking are unconscious and automatic. It would never occur to the unlucky people to see it a different way.
Isn't there something delusional about that approach — sort of a modern version of Dr. Pangloss's "All for the best in the best of all possible worlds"? Suppose I said, "I just wrote this article, and the article stinks, and nobody read it. But hey, at least I have two arms."
What's so delusional about that? If it keeps you going in the face of adversity and softens the impact of the fact that no one read your article, and therefore you think, "Well, I can write another article, and I'm going to learn from the mistakes of the past one, and I'm going to keep on going," I think that's fine. It would be delusional if you took it to the extreme — especially if you weren't learning from your mistakes.
But can we acknowledge that sometimes bad stuff — car accidents, natural disasters — just happens? Sometimes it's purely bad, and there's nothing good about it.
I've never heard that from a lucky person.
So if you buy that way of thinking, then there is no bad luck.
That's right. That's what was weird about conducting some of the interviews. Subjects would say, "I'm the luckiest person alive" — and they'd come up with dreadful stories. They'd have the same life events as the unlucky person, but they'd look at them entirely differently.
Isn't that just a fancy version of the power of positive thinking?
There's more science to it — as opposed to the classic "Just think positive, and you'll be successful." I think if you understand a little about where it's coming from, it's a bit easier to adapt into your life.
We had a subject named Carolyn. When she would come to the unit to be interviewed, it would be just this whole string of bad-luck stories: "I can't find anyone. I'm unlucky in love. When I did find someone, the guy fell off his motorbike. The next blind date broke his nose. We were supposed to get married, and the church burned down." But to every single interview, she'd bring along her two kids. They were 6 and 7 years old — very healthy, very happy kids who'd sit there and play. And it was interesting, because most people would love to have two kids like that, but that wasn't part of her world, because she was unlucky in her mind.
How do you get people to begin thinking like lucky people?
We've created a Luck School that teaches people certain techniques. One thing that we do is have people keep a luck diary. At the end of each day, they spend a couple of moments writing down the positive and lucky things that happened. We ask them not to write down the unlucky stuff. Once that starts to build up, what they're doing is adding on, each day. So they look back, and it's five days' worth of positive events, and now it's day six. After doing that for a month, it's difficult not to be thinking about the good things that are happening.
What are the applications of your research to business?
We've just done our first Luck School with an entire company. We took all 35 employees through it. The CEO was very open to change. The ideas resonated with him because that's how he has lived his life. So when he heard them, he said, "I want everybody in my organization to think like this." If we did nothing but make his employees feel better about themselves, he'll be a happy man. If it has an impact on profits and productivity, he'll be a very happy man.
Do you think that lucky organizations really exist?
Yes. Whether it translates to just percentages of lucky people, or whether it translates to a particular mixture, where some score high on one principle and others score high on another, I don't know. In the sense of organizational culture and identity, I think that some organizations will be seen as lucky and successful and others will be seen as unlucky, in the same way that individuals are.
You spent a year trying to find the world's funniest joke. Could you tell us the joke that won?
Two New Jersey hunters go hunting. After a while, one of the hunters clutches his throat and falls to the ground, his eyes roll back, and he's lying there motionless. The other one picks up a cell phone, dials 911, and says, "I think my friend is dead! I don't know what to do!" And the operator says, "Just relax. Calm down. The first thing to do is to make certain your friend is dead." There's a pause — then a gunshot. And the hunter gets back on the phone and says, "Okay. Now what?"
That's some bad luck for the friend.
Yes, unfortunately. But bad luck is funny.
Bad luck is funny?
Bad luck is funny — provided it's not happening to you.
Sidebar: Wanna Get Lucky?
According to Richard Wiseman, these four principles can create good fortune in your life and career.
1. Maximize Chance Opportunities
Lucky people are skilled at creating, noticing, and acting upon chance opportunities. They do this in various ways, which include building and maintaining a strong network, adopting a relaxed attitude to life, and being open to new experiences.
2. Listen to Your Lucky Hunches
Lucky people make effective decisions by listening to their intuition and gut feelings. They also take steps to actively boost their intuitive abilities — for example, by meditating and clearing their mind of other thoughts.
3. Expect Good Fortune
Lucky people are certain that the future will be bright. Over time, that expectation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because it helps lucky people persist in the face of failure and positively shapes their interactions with other people.
4. Turn Bad Luck Into Good
Lucky people employ various psychological techniques to cope with, and even thrive upon, the ill fortune that comes their way. For example, they spontaneously imagine how things could have been worse, they don't dwell on the ill fortune, and they take control of the situation.
Daniel H. Pink (firstname.lastname@example.org), author of Free Agent Nation: The Future of Working for Yourself (Warner Business Books, 2002), is writing a book about the rise of right-brained thinking in modern life. He considers himself one lucky guy. For more information on the Luck Project, visit the Web (www.luckfactor.co.uk).
A version of this article appeared in the July 2003 issue of Fast Company magazine.