As I mentioned in yesterday’s blog post, there are practical reasons for acknowledging the vital importance of luck in our success. One of the best reasons is that you can actually become luckier.
Luck, whether good or bad, would seem to be random by definition. But what if it’s possible to increase the odds in your favor? Are some people naturally luckier than others? Is there a science of luck? Richard Wiseman, the author of The Luck Factor, certainly thinks so.
Some people just seem to be in the right place at the right time—and vice versa—more often than others. Some people might think it’s just confirmation bias—we’ve all heard stories about someone missing the flight that crashed, but we don’t read about the poor person on standby who got put on the flight only because the other person missed it. When I met a fellow on a plane whose company turned into one of my biggest clients, that was a clear case of being in the right place at the right time.
But being in the right place at the right time is not enough. The Venn diagram of Fortune has a third circle, and it’s called state of mind.
Going back to meeting people on a plane, I often fly hundreds of legs a year, and I usually don’t speak to the person sitting next to me; after training all day I’m usually not in the state of mind to be chatty. How many other potential clients have passed me by because I wasn’t in the right state of mind when the opportunity presented itself?
According to Wisemans’ research, there is a particular state of mind that will make you lucky. He has experimentally manipulated people into situations where the place and the time were right, such as planting five pound notes or potentially helpful individuals. Some people look luck straight in the face and miss it entirely, and others pick up on the opportunity instantly.
Wiseman has found that there are specific personality traits that can make you lucky. Of the Big 5 personality traits, he found three that correlate to being in the right state of mind that make you more likely to spot and exploit opportunities.
Extroversion: Although it seems unfair to introverts, extroverted people have three advantages in the luck department: they are more likely to strike up the conversation with a stranger, they have larger networks, and they tend to attract others by exhibiting more approachable body language and demeanor.
Neuroticism: Those low in neuroticism, i.e. more calm and relaxed, are more likely to take in their broader surroundings. For example, goals and focus are great, but they can also make you anxious and narrow your attention so that you miss opportunities.
In one of Wiseman’s experiments, he gave volunteers a section of newspaper and asked them to count the number of photos in the section. Almost everyone correctly counted 43 photos after about two minutes of searching, but every single person missed two messages in the newspaper, each written in large type that took up half a page.
The first was on page 2, and it read: STOP COUNTING—THERE ARE 43 PHOTOGRAPHS IN THIS NEWSPAPER.
The second message was about halfway through, and it read: STOP COUNTING, TELL THE EXPERIMENTER YOU HAVE SEEN THIS AND WIN $250.
Relax. Paradoxically, trying too hard to spot opportunities can make you less likely to do so.
Openness: People who are not open to new experiences tend to go to the same places at the same times; their circles stay small. An open mind expands the time and place circles by facilitating a greater variety in your routine, but it has the greatest effect on the size of the mind circle. When opportunity knocks, those with a closed mind peer at it fearfully through the peephole and don’t open the door.
In sum, randomness plays a bigger part in our lives than most of us credit, so why not look for ways to take advantage of it? If you have the traits Wiseman describes, lucky for you; if not, there are steps you can take to develop them. The great realist Machiavelli said, “Fortune governs one half of our actions, but even so she leaves the half more or less in our power to control.” Apparently, even the other half may also be controllable. Yes, you can get lucky if you try.