When it comes to the lottery and raffles Mum always says she is not lucky, but she always buys a ticket at the local village and horticultural shows, and the regular supply of sweet sherry and cuddly toys, prove she is wrong. I may not have all that I want right now, and I may bemoan my luck, but with wonderful relationships with Annie and Sasha, three brilliant children and now a grandchild, I should actually reflect on a great deal of luck.
What goes around comes around, is the mantra of any sports fan after their team has suffered the bad decision of a referee or umpire, but we know that over time everything is supposed to even out. Maybe, but how often does it seem that when we are down and vulnerable everything else goes wrong. Remember the adage, bad luck always comes in threes.
In statistics anything is possible, but some things are more probable. At the start of Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Rosencrantz watches with incredulity as Guildenstern flips coins, all landing heads. Twenty-seven consecutive heads are just as likely as winning a Euro Millions lottery. It is unlikely, but the lottery has been won and when you have thrown 27 heads, again it becomes a simple binary heads or tails.
Philosophers have looked at luck and, as they do, come up with a taxonomy. We are born into a family and society that predetermines much of our later life, or we may have a predisposition to certain illness and disease that kill us early. In the philosopher’s jargon, these are part of constitutive luck and antecedent causal luck. The other categories are resultant and circumstantial luck which reflect making decisions and taking actions just before an unseen cataclysmic event such as the recession of 2007.
This is rather dry and didn’t satisfy my curiosity why some people seem luckier than others. I know talent isn’t necessarily enough for success. I have seen wonderful musicians playing small audiences and wonder why they aren’t global stars. In my new profession there is one new book published on Amazon every 5 minutes and wonder how, and indeed why, one gets picked to rise to the top.
I could blame my bad luck at not being spotted as the undoubted talent I am, and the philosophers do nothing to help me. All their categorisations do is remove my responsibility making me the subject of an external whim. That can’t be right. If I don’t write, then I can never be a best-selling author. I must be part of the chain of luck.
What I want to know is how much of bad luck is fate or bad karma and how much is my fault. Of course, there are many things to change the odds in my favour. I wanted to know what they are.
My research has taken me to psychologist Richard Wiseman, a Professor of the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire in the United Kingdom. There are many references to him and I urge you to read them and his book, The Luck Factor. In the Daily Telegraph in 2003, Professor Wiseman says,
To launch my study, I placed advertisements in national newspapers and magazines, asking for people who felt consistently lucky or unlucky to contact me. Over the years, 400 extraordinary men and women volunteered for my research from all walks of life: the youngest is an 18-year-old student, the oldest an 84-year-old retired accountant.
Over the years, I interviewed these volunteers, asked them to complete diaries, questionnaires, and intelligence tests, and invited them to participate in experiments.
The findings have revealed that although unlucky people have almost no insight into the real causes of their good and bad luck, their thoughts and behaviour are responsible for much of their fortune.
That is what I wanted to hear and always felt. We can determine our luck. I have some control over my luck.
Take the case of chance opportunities. Lucky people consistently encounter such opportunities, whereas unlucky people do not. I carried out a simple experiment to discover whether this was due to differences in their ability to spot such opportunities.
I gave both lucky and unlucky people a newspaper and asked them to look through it and tell me how many photographs were inside. On average, the unlucky people took about two minutes to count the photographs, whereas the lucky people took just seconds. Why? Because the second page of the newspaper contained the message: “Stop counting. There are 43 photographs in this newspaper.” This message took up half of the page and was written in type that was more than 2in high. It was staring everyone straight in the face, but the unlucky people tended to miss it and the lucky people tended to spot it.
For fun, I placed a second large message halfway through the newspaper: “Stop counting. Tell the experimenter you have seen this and win £250.” Again, the unlucky people missed the opportunity because they were still too busy looking for photographs.
Professor Wiseman’s research revealed that lucky people generate good fortune via four basic principles. They are skilled at creating and noticing chance opportunities, make lucky decisions by listening to their intuition, create self-fulfilling prophesies via positive expectations, and adopt a resilient attitude that transforms bad luck into good.
He says I think there are three easy techniques that can help to maximise good fortune:
- Unlucky people often fail to follow their intuition when making a choice, whereas lucky people tend to respect hunches. Lucky people are interested in how they both think and feel about the various options, rather than simply looking at the rational side of the situation. I think this helps them because gut feelings act as an alarm bell – a reason to consider a decision carefully.
- Unlucky people tend to be creatures of routine. They tend to take the same route to and from work and talk to the same types of people at parties. In contrast, many lucky people try to introduce variety into their lives. For example, one person described how he thought of a colour before arriving at a party and then introduced himself to people wearing that colour. This kind of behaviour boosts the likelihood of chance opportunities by introducing variety.
- Lucky people tend to see the positive side of their ill fortune. They imagine how things could have been worse. In one interview, a lucky volunteer arrived with his leg in a plaster cast and described how he had fallen down a flight of stairs. I asked him whether he still felt lucky and he cheerfully explained that he felt luckier than before. As he pointed out, he could have broken his neck.
It turns out that luck is as much a matter of mindset and openness as it is stumbling on the right thing at the right time.
Wiseman points out that this isn’t a matter of stupidity, but of focus. Openness is not just a social capability, but an approach to tasks in general. Unlucky people miss chance opportunities because they are too focused on looking for something else.
Being too task-oriented, in this sense, is actually a bit of a disadvantage, because it can distract from other opportunities that arise along the way.
Do you remember the diminutive South African Gary Player? In an interview in Golf Digest magazine in 2002, he said: I was practising in a bunker down in Texas and this good old boy with a big hat stopped to watch. The first shot he saw me hit went in the hole. He said, “You got 50 bucks if you knock the next one in.” I holed the next one. Then he says, “You got $100 if you hole the next one.” In it went for three in a row. As he peeled off the bills he said, “Boy, I’ve never seen anyone so lucky in my life.” And I shot back, “Well, the harder I practice, the luckier I get.”
In 2015, Rod Wolfe, was standing outside his home when a tree next to him was hit by a lightning bolt. He ended up in the hospital with broken ribs and some cardiac problems. Unlucky? Of course, especially as eighteen years earlier, he was hit by lightning while working in a cemetery. Or, you could think he is very lucky. He has survived two strikes by lightning.
Bad luck, ill fortune whatever you want to call it is something we all must share. Life has its difficulties, but it will level out over a month, a year or a lifetime, however, if you can’t wait that long then get up and do something about it.
To paraphrase Richard Wiseman, if you don’t buy a ticket, you can’t win the raffle.