Are you the person who finds a twenty-dollar bill on the street? Ends up seated on a plane next to the very person who can dramatically help your career?
If the answer is "no," you can change that. And if you're already lucky, you can become luckier. That's the lesson from research by Richard Wiseman (really), a professor at Britain's University of Hertfordshire, who studies both those who consider themselves lucky and those who don't. He found that "lucky" people are no more likely than anyone else to win the lottery. But they are more likely to find money on the street or to meet people who can help their careers. That's because, in a very real sense, they make their own luck. They act differently than their unlucky colleagues, and they are rewarded.
Wiseman's experiments are simple, but ingenious. In one, he asked participants to count the number of photographs in a newspaper. Those who described themselves as lucky were much more likely to notice a half-page ad on page two that read "Stop counting — There are 43 photographs in this newspaper." In another experiment, Wiseman put money on the ground and planted an actor posing as an important businessperson in a coffee shop. The lucky people were much more likely to scoop up the cash, and to launch into a conversation with the actor. The unlucky people never saw the money, and never chatted with the actor.
Other researchers, including the University of California-Riverside's Sonja Lyubomirsky, have since validated Wiseman's essential point: In important ways, we make our own luck. Here's how the research suggests we can do it:
Look outward. To a large extent, being lucky is all about creating, or picking up on, opportunities that others miss. So the first step in being lucky is to get out of your own little world, and to take off the blinders that let you ignore everything on, say, your morning commute. Lucky people smile twice as much as unlucky people. They engage in more eye contact. They keep in touch with more people. All of these things create new opportunities, because they invite more people into your life.
Be flexible. This helps you remain receptive to 'luck' that might be headed your way. And one of the ways we can keep our brain limber is by doing thought experiments, and asking ourselves to get out of some of our comfortable habits of thinking. If you're a committed Democrat, try to think of 10 reasons a Republican presidency might be a good thing. If you dread family holidays, make a list of reasons they're sort of entertaining.
Shake it up. You also need to get yourself out of physical ruts. This doesn't mean you have to move to a cabin in Montana or a flat on the Champs-Elysees. If you usually drive to work, take the train. Run your errands in a different section of town. If you enjoy reading Cooks Illustrated, try picking up a copy of Maxim. If you usually brown bag your lunch, go out with a co-worker instead. Again, you don't have to make drastic changes. Just make a conscious effort to encounter new ideas and new people.
Slack off. Being too focused on work, or on the task in front of us, is bad for luck. (They don't call this 'tunnel vision' for nothing). Follow a link to an interesting blog. Chit-chat with your co-workers. Take a walk around the block. You never know what you'll discover.
Get over the hump. Sometimes, when a new opportunity comes our way, we can't see past the short-term work required to take advantage or it. Maybe a great new job offer requires a new babysitting arrangement, or even a move. That makes it tempting to stick with the same old same old. To get in a different frame of mind, ask yourself, "Which of these will I regret not doing later?" or "What's the worst that can happen?"
As a friend of mine often reminds me when I'm hesitant to take a leap, "Think of all the losers you know. Are any of them living on the streets? No. And you're not a loser. So it'll work out fine." I'm the first to admit this is a bit callous. But it does shake me up, which is often exactly what I need.
Admit that you don't know how you are going to achieve your goals. Then set goals that reflect that understanding. If your goal is never to miss a bedtime or a homework session with your kids, you're not giving yourself many options. If your goal is to be a great parent, there are zillions of different ways in which you can succeed, greatly increasing the odds you'll do so.
While some people may indeed be born lucky, the rest of us can be made lucky. Be receptive to new people, shake up your routine, and take your blinders off. Then let us know how it goes. — KW
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Image courtesy of flickr user Manni Underground