Some people are luckier than others.

How many of you believe this? Why do you believe it? Are you one of the lucky ones? Or does luck seem to pass you by? And just what is luck, anyhow?

According to John D. Krumboltz and Al S. Levin, there’s no such thing as luck. In fact, they shirk the use of the word in their book Luck Is No Accident: Making the Most of Happenstance in Your Life and Career, opting instead to use “happenstance”, a term with less baggage. Krumboltz and Levin argue that happenstance isn’t something that randomly effects us — it’s something that we create out of the chance situations and encounters that run through our lives:

Have you ever noticed that unplanned events — chance occurrences — more often determine your life and career choices than all the careful planning you do? A chance meeting, a broken appointment, a spontaneous vacation trip, a “fill-in” job, a newly discovered hobby — these are the kinds of experiences — happenstances — that lead to unexpected life directions and career choices.

The key is to recognize these opportunities and to act on them. Here are some techniques the authors suggest we can use to turn happenstance to our advantage.

  1. Make the most of unplanned events. We are constantly bombarded by the unexpected. Most of the time, we dodge unplanned events in order to return to our normal lives. We fear the spontaneous. But if you can relax, open your mind, and roll with the unplanned, new opportunities will unfold.
  2. Share your interests and experiences with people you meet. You don’t need to force your story on others. But learn to strike up conversations with people you meet. Ask them about their lives. They’ll ask you about yours. In Never Eat Alone, Keith Ferrazzi notes this is a great way to form connections you might otherwise miss. In this way, you may sometimes turn a random encounter into a possible “lucky break”. (Occasionally you will be a source of luck for the people you meet, just as they will sometimes be a source of luck for you.)
  3. Always keep your options open. Goals are good. But single-minded devotion to a goal can often blind a person to other opportunities. And it’s a mistake to cling to one path out of a sense of obligation. If you enter law school and discover you hate it, quit. Don’t endure years of misery because you feel it’s expected of you. “Refuse to serve a life sentence of misery,” the authors write. You have more options than you think, but you may need to open your eyes to see them.
  4. Wake up — before your dreams come true. When I was a boy, I loved computers. Computer programmers, like those in WarGames and Real Genius, were my heroes. But when I finally became a programmer myself, it wasn’t anything like I had imagined it. It was drudgery. I gave up my dream and moved on to something else. Pursue goals, but be sure to reassess your progress and your priorities at regular intervals to prevent yourself from becoming trapped in a reality that is nothing like your dreams.
  5. Try it — even without knowing the outcome. Two of the best ways to “be lucky” are to be willing to take calculated risks and to embrace unexpected opportunities. Try new things. Go new places. Don’t just do the things for which you know the eventual outcome. I’ve learned that the best way for me to grow as a person is to do something completely outside my comfort zone. Good things happen when I do.
  6. Maintain a strong social network. “Building and maintaining good relationships with other people is an important component for job success,” the authors write. Other people can provide support in times of trouble, they can act as resources when you need information, and they can offer valuable connections to other social networks. Again, Keith Ferrazzi covers many of these concepts in Never Eat Alone, a book that explores the value of strong social networks. (And remember: it’s just as important for you to help others as it is for you to draw upon their help.)
  7. Go ahead and make mistakes. Do not be afraid to fail. It’s trite, but it’s true: those who never try, never fail. And those who never fail, never learn. “First ask yourself: What is the worst that can happen?” Dale Carnegie once advised. “Then prepare to accept it. Then proceed to improve on the worst.” If you can learn to react to mistakes constructively, you can actually improve your situation and get on with life.
  8. Take action to create your own luck. The authors offer a number of useful tips for creating your own luck:
    • Act now. Don’t procrastinate. Begin pursuing your goals today.
    • Avoid the “sunk cost fallacy”. Just because you’ve spent time and money on something doesn’t mean you can or should continue doing so.
    • Take advantage of timely opportunities. Don’t be afraid to say “yes” when a favorable circumstance arises.
    • Always do your best work, even when you think the task is unimportant.
    • Ask for what you want. If you do not ask, you cannot receive.
    • Be persistent. Don’t give up. Work hard.
    • Become a lifelong learner. In 50 Success Classics, Tom Butler-Bowdon notes that most successful men and women have made a habit of reading, and of constant self-improvement.

    Follow these seven guidelines, and your “luck” is bound to improve.

  9. Enjoy yourself — the good life is a balanced life. Here’s advice I sometimes forget. A person who leads a balanced life is happier, more relaxed, more open to new experiences. If you maintain good relationships, explore satisfying hobbies, prioritize physical fitness, go out of your way to help others, and continue to pursue personal growth, you will become a well-rounded person, just the sort that “luck” favors.
  10. Overcome self-sabotage. Finally, in order to make the most of “luck” and happenstance, you must learn to face down your greatest enemy: your self. Each of us is capable of thwarting good fortune through negative self-talk. We beat ourselves up over our pasts. We tell ourselves that we “can’t” do something before we even try.

Dale Carnegie once said, “Happiness doesn’t depend on ay external conditions — it is governed by your mental attitude.” Some people might dismiss this as bunk, but research bears it out. Don’t worry about circumstances beyond your control. Learn to control the things you can, including your reaction to the world around you. How you respond to an unfortunate event is often more important than the event itself. Krumboltz and Levin write:

You have control over your own actions and how you think about the events that impact your life. None us can control the outcomes, but your actions can increase the probability that desired outcomes will occur. There are no guarantees in life. The only guarantee is that doing nothing will get you nowhere.

Luck is No AccidentInaction is the surest path to failure. You cannot succeed if you never try. My father used to tell me this, but I never took his advice to heart. I became an expert at doing nothing, at never daring to pursue my dreams. Over the past two years, I’ve begun to overcome this fear, have begun to act. I’ve begun to make my own luck.

Luck Is No Accident is a short book. Nothing in it is groundbreaking or revolutionary. Yet its common-sense wisdom is a powerful motivator. Whenever I read this book — I’ve read it three times in the past year — I cannot help but come away inspired, ready to make more of my situation, and to try new things. Is it worth owning? Perhaps not. But if you’re the sort of person who wonders why good things only happen to other people, I certainly encourage you to borrow a copy from your local library.

Photo by cimarroncat. This review first appeared in slightly different format at Zen Habits.