Lately I‘ve been thinking a lot about luck. In these uncertain times, its tempting to think that maybe there is something you can do to get a little edge. My father was an usually practical man, but he could be superstitious, especially when it came to luck. Growing up during the depression I don’t think he want to take any unnecessary chances. He was known to carry a buckeye in his pocket for luck, he refused to eat anything that that scratched the ground on New Year’s Day, and he even nailed a horseshoe over the doorway to the garage (pointing upwards, of course, so the luck wouldn’t dribble out). Despite his best efforts the only thing lucky in our family was the brand of cigarettes my mother smoked.
I always assumed that luck was sort of randomly distributed, but it seems like it is more like other characteristics, with some people at each extreme and most of us in the middle. Multi-millionaire Senator Judd Gregg fromNew Hampshirecould be a poster child for the lucky ducks. In 2005 he cashed in a Powerball ticket worth $853,000. To add a bit of irony, his good luck occurred right after voting against raising the minimum wage and increasing subsidies to help poor people pay their heating bills.
Our son had a Norwegian friend who also lived a charmed existence. He had Aryan superiority written all over him. Slot machines are everywhere inNorwayand this fellow couldn’t pass one by with out playing and winning.
On the other side of the spectrum are people like outdoors writer Patrick Mc Manus who insists that he is so unlucky, when it comes to hunting and fishing, that his bad fortune rubs off on others. I guess there is nothing very new about hexes, jinxes, and Jonahs. They even made a movie about it. William Macy starred in a 2003 film entitled The Cooler, in which a casino boss hires an extremely unlucky man to hang around so that his presence will break other players good luck streaks.
Of course, the big question is whether we make our own luck or is really just random. Branch Rickey, manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, once said, “Luck is the residue of design”.
English psychologist Richard Wiseman from the Universityof Hertfordshireand author of The Luck Factor, has conducted a series of experiments comparing people who see themselves as lucky and those who don’t.
In one study he asked his subjects to follow a set path across town to meet him at a particular coffee shop. Secretly he had placed 20-pound notes along the pathway. He found that the lucky subjects were much more likely to notice the money and collect it along the way. Unlucky subjects were oblivious to the opportunities along the path. When the subjects arrived at the destination, four people were waiting.One was a very successful entrepreneur .
The lucky subjects were attracted to the rich entrepreneur and even engaged him in conversation. When all the subjects were asked how the day went, the unlucky ones said nothing special happened. The lucky subjects saw the day as very lucky and mentioned finding the money and talking to a person who might offer some business opportunities.
Not only were lucky people more observant, they also had their radar especially attuned to potential opportunities. Overall they were more open to the possibility of positive experiences.
In another study Wiseman asked lucky and unlucky people to look through a newspaper to determine how many photographs it contained. Unlucky subjects took about two minutes to count the photographs, but lucky people averaged only a few seconds. On the second newspaper page was a message printed in two inch letters which said “Stop counting – There are 43 photographs in this newspaper.” Invariably unlucky subjects overlooked it, while the lucky subjects easily spotted it. Such opportunities for good luck may be constantly staring all of us in the face, but we are too inattentive to recognize them.
Wiseman posited that unlucky people are generally more anxious, which supports research that suggests anxiety interferes with the ability to notice the unexpected.
Lucky people also engage their environment more actively, thereby increasing the possibility of positive outcomes. Unlucky people are more passive, as if they expect a hostile reception to any overtures they might make.
Wiseman concluded that people could be taught to be luckier and devised what he called LuckSchool. InLuckSchool people practice exercises that encourage them to think and behave like lucky people. Wiseman found that about 80% of his graduates said that they felt luckier and more satisfied with their lives.
The curriculum was based on four principles. First, lucky people believe that the future holds good fortune for them. This becomes self-fulfilling and helps them persevere in difficult times. Psychologists believe that optimism is the major factor underlying luck.
Second, lucky people are very good at recognizing and talking advantage of unexpected opportunities. Being relaxed helps them do this.
Third, they trust their instincts in making decisions and they focus exclusively on the issue under consideration. If your intuition is consistently wrong, then maybe you should do the exact opposite, like George Constanza did on a Seinfeld episode.
Finally, lucky people have superior coping skills that help them weather adversity. In fact they seem to thrive on it.
People may also do things that diminish their luck. Unlucky actions are not only foolish things, like walking down a dark alley with 100 dollar bills hanging out of your pocket, but also more subtle behaviors like walking around aimlessly looking vulnerable.
When it comes to certain crimes, perhaps we occasionally make our own bad luck. It has been said you can’t cheat and honest man. In the 1997 film Grosse Pointe Blank , John Cusack stars as a professional hit man, who says, “If I show up at your door, chances are you did something to bring me there.” But we should also be careful about blaming innocent victims and turning into Job’s comforters, who wrongly assumed Job did something wrong to merit his misfortune.
In tough times perhaps we can all improve our luck a little by being more mindful of opportunities. As for the existence of luck? French poet Jean Cocteau said, “We must believe in luck. For how else can we explain the success of those we don’t like?”