In my study of and writings on life satisfaction, I have sought to empower myself and others with strategies that can increase our likelihood of attaining what I call Sustainable Happiness.
As I point out in my book “The Happiness Tree”, happiness is a multifaceted gem that requires the blending of various strategies to create and sustain it. Examples are Health, Creativity, Curiosity, Wonder, Self Mastery and Integrity, among others. One element I never considered was Luck. Precisely because I deemed luck to not be a strategy but rather something capricious that is beyond our control. But a concept that was recently revealed to me is altering my thinking on that.
Is luck really a random, one-off event?
Or a process of placing yourself in the flow of opportunity?
In a recent TED talk I listened to, led by Dr. Tina Seelig, a Professor in the Department of Management, Science and Engineering (MS&E) at Stanford University, I learned of her work in the area of Luck and what seems to make some people luckier than others.
She starts out by explaining the accepted definition of luck, which is: Success or failure apparently caused by chance. And as she points out, chance is the operative word here. Many people determine luck to be a matter of chance and furthermore, that luck seems to favor some people more than others. But if chance were really the driving force behind luck wouldn’t the distribution of these random good fortunes be more equitably distributed? Is a lucky person more…well, just more lucky? Or is there actually some process at work behind the scenes? And if so, how can we uncover this “secret knowledge" and use it to increase our likelihood of being lucky?
So What is Luck Anyway?
No, I'm not advocating that we begin a pointless intellectual exercise. I truly believe it is useful to try to deconstruct what luck really is and whether it can be captured or harnessed to increase our success. This is where metaphors become useful in helping us get our head around the physics of luck. Dr. Seelig says that most of us imagine luck to be like lightning, striking here and there with no discernible or predictable pattern. But she views luck more like the wind, circulating around us all the time. And as we know, the wind can be harnessed, as it is in a sailing vessel. That is why she compels us to imagine ourselves raising a large sail to capture the luck that swirls around us.
What does this sail look like and how can we interpret this metaphor in practical terms that inspire different success building actions? To answer this question, I harken back to the ancient traditions of mature cultures, like those found in Asia. In many Eastern philosophies, the concept of Karma is central to leading a successful life. And while it is a complex term, with many different interpretations, there is one central tenant: Cause and Effect. Good actions beget good outcomes and bad actions… well, you get the picture. And while it may seem that the concept of Karma was dreamed up by religious leaders as a strategy to maintain social order, its reasoning actually embodies some essential truths about the nature of luck.
Dr. Seelig points out three strategies that we can practice to harness the power of luck, (or cause and effect) and use it to our advantage.
1. Change Your Relationship to Yourself - It is common for us to recognize and marvel at the wisdom of children and how their curiosity, wonder, openness and experimentation helps them learn and develop. Dr. Seelig defines this as the willingness to take small risks. Learning to walk involves risk. Playing with other children involves risk. And yet, children often dive right in, not deterred by the possibility of failure. Yet, as adults, we are far more tentative and self-protective. And while weighing the odds of success or failure is a necessary strategy in the navigation of our complex adult lives, when it stifles our willingness to reach beyond our comfort zone, it trims our sail and limits our ability to capture the winds of good fortune.
Dr. Seelig recalls how beginning a conversation with a stranger, who happened to be a publisher, sitting next to her on a plane eventually resulted in the publishing of her book, which sold over a million copies. But upon hearing that anecdote out of context, one might assume only pure luck or some other modifying factor was at play. That is why she goes on to explain that he initially rejected her manuscript for publication. Yet, in spite of this, she continued to build on this connection, maintaining contact with the gentleman, taking opportunities to share her work and passions with him and his colleagues. Eventually, her work landed in front of the right eyes and shortly after, she was a published author. Was it luck that her airline seat happened to be right next to a publisher? Indeed it was. But if she had not taken a small risk and began a conversation with him, then maintained contact, that seed of success would never have germinated.
2. Change Your Relationship to Others -In Sonya Sotomayor’s speech to NYU graduates, she admonished her audience to “Remember, that no one succeeds alone”. Every success story involves the contributions of others along the way. And if you don’t acknowledge these gestures, no matter how small, you may be inadvertently burning important bridges to your future success. Dr.Seelig revealed one of her strategies for maintaining gratitude and demonstrating her appreciation. She goes through her calendar at the end of each day and jots down the name of each person she met with. She then sends each of them a note thanking them for their time and consideration. She reveals that this simple exercise lets others know that their involvement made a difference.
3. Change Your Relationship to Ideas - Most people pigeonhole ideas into one of two camps immediately… either good or bad. But it is actually much more nuanced than that. Prof. Seelig states that hidden within the seeds of bad ideas are often something truly remarkable. And she goes on to maintain that many of the products or services we now think of as innovative or successful, started out as what many might have considered bad ideas.
To that I would add that luck is often the narrowing of options that ultimately leads you in a different direction. One of the self-inflicted challenges most of us face on the road to achieving a goal is the reluctance to define success more broadly. We fix our gaze on one narrowly defined destination and never take the time to consider the importance of what we might discover or accomplish along the way. History is replete with stories of inventors and average people who set out to create or discover one thing and ended up achieving something quite unexpected. Here are a couple of examples:
In 1856, a teenage Chemistry student named William Perkins was working to create an artificial quinine to treat malaria. Though it was unsuccessful, over the course of his experimenting with tree bark and coal tar, he discovered a new color in the residue, which came to be called Mauve. Perkins isolated the color and would go on to create the world's first synthetic dye.
Before it was used as a children’s clay, Play-Doh was a compound created by a company called Kutol Products to be a cleaning treatment for filthy wallpaper. But the product failed to sell much until schoolchildren began using it for arts and crafts projects and to create Christmas ornaments. By removing the compound's cleanser and adding colors and a fresh scent, Kutol spun their wallpaper saver into one of the most iconic toys of all time — and brought mega-success to a company headed for bankruptcy.
Allow your definition of success to be more elastic.
You may not be attempting to set the world on fire with a new invention. You may be attempting only to improve your life, whether through better relationships, or more satisfying work, etc. But any change requires you to take some risk. And risk is like raising that sail we discussed earlier, even a little bit. Without it, your position in the ocean of possibilities cannot change. To further exploit the metaphor, setting sail can indeed cause you to drift in a direction different from your perceived destination. And that’s not always a bad thing. Don’t underestimate the role of serendipity in your journey toward a goal and be willing to embrace a more elastic definition of success. You may end up arriving at a destination far better than the one you set sail for in the first place.
-Shane Eric Mathias