Man Can Live By Luck Alone

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The concept of human probability is more alien to the human mind than you think, according to Nate Silverman, speaking at the London School of Economics, and famous for predicting the US Presidential elections.

Frankly, that makes a lot of evolutionary sense. If cavemen knew the exact odds of taking down a fully grown mammoth with a stone and a sling, we’d all still be foraging in lush tropical forests and constructing nests every night. Also: everyone would be covered in hair. Even the ladies.

So probability took a step out the door; and an elderly gentleman dressed in skins began to rattle around a calabash, blessing hunts and persuading the weather gods to bring the rain when it was needed. Daily life soon revolved around necklace charms, an occasional spell, and the beneficence of Lady Luck. And even today, we avoid ladders. It makes us sound a bit blind, actually.
Here’s an allegory: you’re standing in an open field, being burned by the noonday sun. You beg your God to send clouds to block the rays and relieve the heat. No clouds get sent. Are you unlucky? Seems so. Or perhaps you’re just asking the wrong question – seeing as you’ve been given legs to walk into the shade. You also have hands to build with. And in your desperate focus on the skies – straining for any sign of divine favour – you’re ignoring the piles of wood on the ground next to you. Wood that could be poles and roof and shelter.

The Science of Luck

Richard Wiseman is an experimental psychologist. He’s relatively famous for investigating the unusual quirks of human behavior, and most famous for his experimentation with the psychology of luck, which he wrote about in his book The Luck Factor.

Over a 10 year period, he collected a sample of 400 people that self-identified as either clearly lucky or extraordinarily unlucky. In the opening chapters, he describes a few of them: the gentleman that sold his business to Warren Buffett after meeting him on the street; the air stewardess who appears to doom flights as she boards them (even if, luckily – she always manages to survive the flight!). And what he discovered is that the “lucky” people amongst us are not just blessed by fortune. They are in fact different in the way that they think, and in the way that they behave.

Wiseman identifies four characteristics (he phrases them as “principles”) that separate the lucky from the less-so. Here’s the list, and then I’ll discuss them:

1. The ability to create and take advantage of chance opportunities;
2. The ability to make good decisions;
3. The ability that I can only describe as “faith that it will all work out”; and
4. The ability to see even the bad times as situations that can be turned to one’s advantage.

They all sound cloying and clichéd, right? Maybe so. But there is some pretty solid justification behind each of those – if you’ll just bear through the self-help-sounding mantras.

Chance Opportunities

Most of us live out the day in a pretty similar manner to the one before it. We get up at the same time, take the same route to work, and never deviate from the coffee order placed with the barista we now know by name. We rotate through the same list of restaurants (most of my first dates take place in the same roadside café). It is easy to slip into our routines. In fact – we get a bit uncomfortable when the routine gets broken.

What is the problem with this?

The trouble with not doing anything new is that you rarely meet anyone new. And you know the adage – it’s not what you know, it’s who you know? Networking is the secret of success.
But once I fall into a routine, I’ve basically made the decision to fix my network of acquaintances. So I start to miss out on those connections that could land me a new job, or a new client. Just watch the guy in your circle that always seems to get places just a little bit faster than everyone else. Notice how he always seems to know people in restaurants? And how conversation just seems to flow easily with him? Tell him to start letting you tag along.

Making Good Decisions

Let me give you an example of two people:

  • John is fairly certain that everyone else has it easier than him. He stresses that he’s going to get fired. He also panics about being late for work, and about missing deadlines, and about not knowing the answer to any question that he gets asked.
  • James doesn’t really think about stuff too deeply. He’s pretty punctual most days, but he doesn’t really believe that anyone will fire him for arriving 2 minutes late. At worst, he’ll get a reprimand. And as for deadlines: he’s more concerned that the stuff gets done properly. If he feels like the deadline is too tight, he lets everyone know upfront – he calls it “expectation management”.

Here’s an obvious question: which of those two people is more likely to make a good decision? The always-anxious John or the relatively-relaxed James? It certainly won’t be John – he’s too hyped up on his own adrenalin to think clearly.

Sometimes, believing that you’re unlucky is going to make you stressed, which is going to throw your intuition out of whack. It seems that the lucky win this round because they’re simply just calmer.

Faith that it’ll work out well

Do you ever wonder why it is that people who expect good things seem to get good things? People talk about willing it from the Universe, “the Secret” and all that New Age jazz. I’m not quite sure that’s it.

I think that expecting good things encourages you to take more risks – with people, with investments, with optimistic debt commitments. And here’s another adage: “nothing ventured…”

What about the bad times?

The third adage’s the charm: “everything is alright in the end; and if it’s not alright, then it’s not the end”. People’s reactions to bad news tend to fall into one of two categories:

  • Despondency – characterised by “woe is me” and waiting for things to change.
  • Calls to action – where people eat the humble pie and get out there to try and get it sorted.

The second part will naturally make you feel better, because you’re not feeling helpless. This makes you instantly more receptive to chance opportunities, and much better placed to make good decisions.

The point of it all

People toss a lot away to chance. But “chance” is something that happens once – like winning the lottery. People who are consistently lucky, who experience good fortune and happy coincidence regularly, who defy probability – those people lead lucky lifestyles. They see the world differently – and the world rewards them for it.
So here is how to start putting that into practice:

1. Push through the fear of rejection, or of being irritating, and get more proactive about meeting people. Engage them in the lunch-line, join new sports clubs, accept after-work drink invitations – even when you’d rather just stay home and watch Game of Thrones…
2. Get a therapist to teach you coping strategies (a Cognitive Behavioural Therapist is best).

Which brings us to the real conclusion: if you really want to be lucky, then people matter. An ever-expanding network is the primary source of opportunity luck: the rest is just a question of whether you’re able to see it.

So go and make the odds be ever in your favour.

And be nicer to strangers.

Author Bio: The writer, Jayson Coomer, is a qualified Chartered Accountant with a Masters degree in Financial Management. Unsurprisingly, he now spends most of his time convincing people to manage their finances. You can find him on his blog, or you can follow him on twitter (@RollingAlpha).

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