Is There a Science to Getting Luckier?None By Cary Barbor
Do you consider yourself to be a lucky person? An unlucky one? Whichever way you fall, new thinking may help you change your perspective. In How Luck Happens: Using the Science of Luck to Transform Work, Love, and Life, Janice Kaplan and Barnaby Marsh examine how we may be misconstruing luck, and how we can turn it around to help ourselves live happier lives. We sat down with Kaplan to discuss it.
What made you want to investigate the subject of luck?
Janice Kaplan: One of the things I learned in writing my previous book [The Gratitude Diaries] is that we really have more control over our lives than we think we do. And that it’s not really events that make us happy, it’s our attitude toward them. I started wondering: What if we have more control over luck than we think we do? That was the impetus for us on the book, and we got to work.
How do you define luck?
JK: We turn luck on its head. It’s usually considered random. We think of a lucky event as something that just falls from the sky. But we ended up seeing luck as having three strands. One is random chance. The other two are talent and hard work. And by talent, I don’t mean you have to be Meryl Streep. Talent can include recognizing opportunities, meeting the people who can help you, and possibly being willing to take calculated risks. And hard work we all understand.
If you take talent and hard work together, you’re going to create luck for yourself. Then when the random opportunities come along, you can take advantage of them. And when negative things happen, you have a much better chance of being able to turn them around. So you take that control back from the randomness by seeing it as only one of the three strands that make up luck.
What do you think is the biggest misunderstanding about luck?
JK: People think they don’t have any control over it. Over and over when I told people I was writing a book about luck, they would say, “Oh, are you going to win the lottery?” Well, the lottery is a terrible example of luck. That is raw, random chance. You can’t change those odds, and those odds are against you. It’s much more helpful to look at luck in terms of things where you can change the odds, where you can make a difference.
What can help us change our luck?
JK: Persistence is an important factor to help you change the odds. You hear stories about how many times the work of John Grisham and J.K. Rowling were rejected. On the other hand, what if the book is being turned down because it’s a lousy book? Should you just keep trying? What we came up with was, look at how close you’re getting each time. If you’re trying to be an actor, for example, and you have never gotten a callback from an audition, maybe it’s time to go to law school. But if you’re getting called back, and you’re consistently making it to the last two and then you don’t get the job, you’ve got the talent and you should keep pursuing it. So that’s when the persistence pays off.
What’s the link between risk and luck?
JK: People tend to think that you need to take big risks to get lucky. But we found that it’s more a question of a calculated risk. Often very successful people put a floor under themselves. They make sure there is only so far that they can fall. I think we have a myth in business that you have to be all in, put every penny on the credit card. But it can be good to have a Plan B, or to diversify. We know that in investing, you’re not going to put everything in one stock. Well you don’t want to do that in life either.
You’re not encouraging people to “ask the universe for what you want and it will show up,” right?
JK: This is not The Secret. In trying to change your luck, you focus on what you want and then take steps in that specific direction. Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel-winning psychologist, did a study where he followed people for 20 years from when they were 18 years old. One of the questions he’d asked was, ‘How important is it to you to be wealthy?’ on a scale of 1 to 4. And he found that 20 years later, the people who had answered 4 were much more likely to be wealthy. That’s not magic. That’s knowing that there is something you want and going after it. And if you know at 18 that this is important to you, you’ll tend to go into a business that will help you achieve wealth, in that example. If you have the desire, if you have the focus, you’re going to take the steps to get there.
Who is more likely to boost one's luck: A best friend? Or a random stranger at Starbucks? And how can social media play into this?
JK: Our strongest ties are our close friends and family. But sociologists talk about weak ties, which is that next circle out—people we aren’t as close to. The advantage is that they have different connections than we do. They know about a different job than we do. Your strong ties probably know the same people and opportunities that you do. And social media is interesting to think about. It can be a starting point, but I find that the connection does need to be face to face eventually to be helpful.
Is bad luck always bad? How can it be good?
JK: If you lose your job, it feels really lousy. But try to pull back and get some perspective. Imagine you can see yourself in the woods. Hover from above and see the paths around you and the ways out. It’s not always easy when you’re in the midst of it. But often, what we call "bad luck" will turn into an opportunity—to try something new or to go in a different direction. By having some "bad luck," you put yourself in place for a better opportunity to come along.
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