How to Make Your Own Luck

The current issue of Newsweek (cover-dated 02 February 2009) has a fantastic article from Ben Sherwood entitled “What It Takes to Survive”. Ostensibly, this piece is about how people handle crises. Why do some people panic, some people lead — and most people stand around in a daze?

This larger topic is fascinating, of course, but even more interesting is the article's sub-theme: some people are lucky and some are not. But what we think of as “luck” has almost nothing to do with randomness and everything to do with attitude. According to Richard Wiseman, a professor in the public understanding of psychology at the University of Hertfordshire in Britain, only about 10% of life is purely random; the remaining 90% is defined by the way we think. Our attitudes produce our luck.

Sidenote: Professor Wiseman's research focuses on “quirky areas of psychology, including deception, humour, luck and the paranormal.” He has a new and excellent little blog filled with quirky stuff.

From the Newsweek article:

“Luck is not a magical ability or a gift from the gods,” Wiseman writes. “Instead, it is a state of mind—a way of thinking and behaving.” Above all, he insists that we have far more control over our lives — and our luck — than we realize.

This echoes almost exactly the sentiments in the book Luck is No Accident, which I reviewed last year. In that slim volume, the authors 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.

I've certainly found this to be true in my own life. When I sit around and moan about my misfortunes, more misfortunes seem to come my way. But when I attempt to learn from my mistakes, or from the bad things that happen to me, when I take action instead of remaining passive, even bad luck can be turned to good.

In the Newsweek article, Professor Wiseman suggests four reasons that luck favors certain people:

  1. Lucky people frequently happen upon chance opportunities. But this is more than just being in the right place at the right time. “Lucky” people also have to be aware or the opportunity, and have the courage to seize it.
  2. Lucky people listen to their hunches. In other words, they listen to their gut instinct. This reminds me of Malcolm Gladwell's Blink, which argues that often our first instincts are correct.
  3. Lucky people persevere in the face of failure. You've all seen that Nike commercial from Michael Jordan, right? “I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
  4. Lucky people have the ability to turn bad luck into good fortune. The past couple of weeks have been pretty shitty for me. They've sucked. It would be easy to surrender and just give up. Instead, I've tried to find the positive, and to build something constructive out of my experience. Instead of focusing on the loss of a close friend, I think, “What can I take from this?” As I wrote and delivered my eulogy, for example, I tried to learn more about speaking in public. (My second eulogy at tonight's memorial service should be even better.)

I encourage you to read the entire Newsweek article. It's well worth your time. And it may prove to be the luckiest thing you do all day!

Photo by cimarroncat.

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Chett Daniel
Chett Daniel
11 years ago

I guess this proves your “luck” with blogging. We see 75,000 readers and nearly 1 million views in a month and think “wow he’s lucky to have such a successful blog.”

Lance Armstrong had a quote that is similar to your third point.

He said “People ask me all the time, ‘How to you do so well, what are you on?’ What am I on? I’m on my bike six hours a day busting my ass. What are you on?”

Trevor - 14 Year Old Blogger
Trevor - 14 Year Old Blogger
11 years ago

Great post. MJ is such a good example for this since he works so hard to be the best.

Beth
Beth
11 years ago

I do believe that we make our own luck. Sitting around and wallowing in self-pity or complaining about how crappy everything is really won’t get us anywhere. I don’t mean to suggest that there isn’t a time for self-pity and whining, but we need to put a time limit on it. For example, “I’ll allow myself to wallow in this for the rest of today, but tomorrow, it’s time to get moving.” It’s not that the lucky ignore their grief or their struggles, but they do try to learn from them and then use that knowledge to grow. I’m eager… Read more »

the weakonomist
the weakonomist
11 years ago

Luck is a term that people who don’t work hard use to excuse themselves from being successful.

Luck is a term that people with no skill or drive use to write off the successes of others.

@Chett, great quote from Lance.

ABCs of Investing
ABCs of Investing
11 years ago

I think “lucky” people keep busy pursuing opportunities and will consequently find more good opportunities (along with more dead ends and rejections).

You might know someone with a successful home business and think they are lucky – maybe they were to some degree, but more likely they tried a number of different business ideas (that didn’t work) before finding one that worked.

Lucky people just keep working at it.

James
James
11 years ago

one quote i’ve always lived by “the harder i work, the luckier i get”. it’s all about noticing opportunities and acting on them.

plonkee
plonkee
11 years ago

I’m not sure that you can attribute all of someone’s success to their own hard work. Certainly you have to grasp opportunities, and work hard – but the opportunities need to exist in the first place. Where opportunities are frequent (say business) then success is down to you. Where opportunities are rare (say art) then not so much.

anonymous
anonymous
11 years ago

Luck– random chance– is real and has a huge effect on our lives. Of course blaming all your problems on “bad luck” is no way to get ahead in life, but it’s possible to go to the opposite extreme and blame other people’s genuine misfortune on their “bad attitude”. To anyone who believes as #4 above that “Luck is a term that people with no skill or drive use to write off the successes of others,” I am certain that something random could happen to you tomorrow in spite all your skill and drive that would bring down all your… Read more »

Britt
Britt
11 years ago

You know, this goes right in line with Steven Covey’s habit #1 – Be Proactive. Instead of being reactive. Love the blog, keep up the good work.

J.D.
J.D.
11 years ago

Anonymous wrote: Luck— random chance— is real and has a huge effect on our lives. Yes. Absolutely. I don’t mean to make it sound as if happenstance has no effect on us. Hell, I was born a white male in the United States. By most accounts, that’s a sort of privileged existence in this world, a very real sort of “luck” over which I have had no control. Each of us can cite instances in which we’re more fortunate than others. We can also cite instances in which we’re less fortunate. And I agree that the 90/10 statistic is arbitrary.… Read more »

B
B
11 years ago

Isn’t it simply the psychology of attribution at work? If I attribute my successes to luck rather than hard work and talent, then I will continue striving because my success is a fluke rather than well-earned.

Also, I think plonkee is on to something. Don’t we drain the meaning out of the word luck if it becomes a proxy for hard work and expertise? I wouldn’t use luck to describe either Jordan or Armstrong’s success. I would use it to describe me making a half court shot or winning a leg on the Tour de France.

SF_UK
SF_UK
11 years ago

I often think about my career up to now as being quite “lucky”. But when I look at it from outside, I’ve always been planning, and learning. So, when my job was looking a bit uncertain, I sat down and planned out what I would do if I was made redundant. I talked to people about the plans. It meant I wasn’t scared of redundancy. But it also meant that when a friend saw an advert that matched my plans, they told me. I never was made redundant. I answered the advert, decided that I’d rather do my “emergency plan”… Read more »

Paul
Paul
11 years ago

Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.

You take care of the preparation, and when the opportunity comes along you can choose whether to avail yourself of it – or not.

If you’re not constantly preparing and learning (and saving!), when an opportunity arises you won’t be able to take advantage.

Hang it on the wall, and it’ll help you prepare (work) more/better every day.

Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.

DDFD at DivorcedDadFrugalDad
DDFD at DivorcedDadFrugalDad
11 years ago

Luck isn’t pure chance . . .

I am with Paul– You need to be prepared for good fortune (aka opportunity).

The expression I always remember is:
“Better to be prepared and have no opportunity, then to have an opportunity, and not be prepared . . . “

Chett Daniel
Chett Daniel
11 years ago

@B I think you missed the point. The common person will look at someone and their success and want to call that person lucky (their perception not the reality) what people often don’t see is the preparation and awareness of opportunities that the “lucky” person possessed. True luck would be more along the lines of the lotto, but hey I guess they’re right on that one as well “You can’t win if you don’t play.” After I read the article I wondered does Wiseman discuss anywhere how to move from the 80% or bottom 10% to the top 10%? On… Read more »

Frugal Dad
Frugal Dad
11 years ago

I believe much of the “luck” in business,and other areas of life, happens for people who are more in tune with their “gut feelings.” As J.D. mentions, Gladwell had it right when he said our first instincts are usually right. However, most of us have been taught to analyze things, sleep on decisions, avoid risk,etc, and so we miss the window of opportunity. While some analysis is prudent, sometimes you just have to go with your gut. Preparation is also key, as we have to stay in the right frame of mind to make these gut-feel decisions. Like golfer Gary… Read more »

The Personal Finance Playbook
The Personal Finance Playbook
11 years ago

I have an uncle who has been very successful. When I was a kid, I used to ask him how he got so lucky all the time. He looked at me and said, “Todd, you make your own luck – no one’s going to give it to you.” It has always stuck with me as good advice on how to be successful. Find opportunity in the things you do.

Jean-Pierre
Jean-Pierre
11 years ago

“I’ve tried to find the positive, and to build something constructive out of my experience. Instead of focusing on the loss of a close friend, I think, “What can I take from this?” As I wrote and delivered my eulogy, for example, I tried to learn more about speaking in public. (My second eulogy at tonight’s memorial service should be even better.)” I agree with your points above, but this last one is extremely callous. One should never flip a tragedy to find personal gain for oneself. Take comfort in the memories of his life, learn what you can about… Read more »

Michael
Michael
11 years ago

Great blog you have going here! THANK YOU! Today’s post reminds me of an exercise i do with people who take my meditation class. It meets one night per week for eight weeks, and the first night, i ask the attendees to play a little game with me for the duration – pretend that EVERYTHING that happens to you is your fault. The objections come fast and furious – “If i stop at a stop sign, and a meteor hits me, it’s my fault?” “You’re the one who chose to drive and stop at that sign. Yes.” By the end… Read more »

amy
amy
11 years ago

I read this article last night and agree it is well worth the read. It was a wonderful article!

Erica Douglass
Erica Douglass
11 years ago

It’s interesting to watch this same theme show up over and over again. Napoleon Hill popularized it in “Think and Grow Rich”, but it was an idea before that. J.D., I believe that you chose even your place and time of birth as well as who you were going to be in this life and what major lessons you wanted to learn. Life gets a lot more interesting the more you believe you are in control of it. Car accidents are no accident. Illnesses and deaths aren’t, either. Once you accept the reality that whatever happens to you (including “accidents”)… Read more »

Glenn Carver
Glenn Carver
11 years ago

The best way to predict the future is to CREATE it! I was just listening to Earl Nightingale’s classic “The Strangest Secret” in which he says all of the great philosophers agree on ONE thing – we become what we think…

elisabeth
elisabeth
11 years ago

Balance is needed! On the one hand, a positive, optimistic attitude makes for a more pleasant existence. On the other hand, it won’t do anyone any good to say that randomness doesn’t exist as part of the physical laws of the universe. We can’t control everything in our lives and we can’t blame those who have had bad luck (experienced random negative events) for their situation. Nor can we think it will never happen to us because we are making our own luck.

Jeremy
Jeremy
11 years ago

“You can’t direct the wind, but you can set your sail.” I agree completely with this, and this article. I’m in the midst of unraveling some recent mistakes to see how I could have prepared better or made better choices. That said, I’ve seen that “You make your own luck.” is really good to motivate yourself, not so much as a comment to someone in the middle of a hard situation. It might be right, it may even be the best advice they could get, but if they’re not ready to hear it… And from reading comments here, I think… Read more »

Victor
Victor
11 years ago

People say others are ‘lucky’ because they are jealous about someone else achieving and not them. They ignore the hard work and efforts by that person, mainly because that would make them see that it is possible for them to do more with their life if they just tried harder. Erica: “Car accidents are no accident.” I don’t understand that. You say that I was in control and let the guy plow right into me? I let him make an illegal turn and hit me? Please explain, as I would rather read what you have to say about that versus… Read more »

Jennifer
Jennifer
11 years ago

I completely agree with this post. I have learned that I have a direct connection to the luck that I have in my life. About a year ago, I was in a state where I was not making enough money to pay bills. I spent about a month feeling sorry for myself. Nothing of any good happend to me. I decided that I needed to do something about what was going on in my life. I did not know what at the time but I worked to make my “luck” happen. I started writing very part time and it snow… Read more »

J.D.
J.D.
11 years ago

Jean-Pierre wrote: I agree with your points above, but this last one is extremely callous. One should never flip a tragedy to find personal gain for oneself. Hm. Maybe I did a poor job of making my point. I’m not saying, “Wow, Sparky died! Let’s see how I can turn this to my advantage.” I’m trying to find a way to channel my mourning into something productive. Is it callous to attempt to learn from the things we do, even when the things are unpalatable? Even when the things hurt us? If so, then yes, I’m being callous. But I… Read more »

Happiness Is Better
Happiness Is Better
11 years ago

I agree with the post. I don’t believe in luck, but I do believe in increasing your chances of success which usually involves ACTION.

In my life, I’ve definitely tried to associate with people who make their own luck as opposed to hoping to win the lottery.

Great post!

J.D.
J.D.
11 years ago

@Erica and @Victor I don’t buy the “car accidents are no accident” either. When I was rear-ended in March (or was it April?), this was sheer happenstance. My action (or inaction) played no role in it. Yes, of course, the other driver had a role (a 100% role, actually), but I had no control over whether he was going to crash into the rental. That’s an example of the portion of life that is luck, or chance, or happenstance. Actually, I just re-read Erica’s comment, and I completely disagree with this: I believe that you chose even your place and… Read more »

Shara
Shara
11 years ago

There is such a thing as luck. But words mean things and I think people misuse “luck”. A cursory understanding of statistics will show you that not everything is even. Over time, given a large enough sample, you will usually find a nice distribution, but if you look at actual data or a handful of data points it doesn’t look that way. When you go to a casino every pull of the slot machine or roll of the dice is a practice of luck. There will be some people who walk out as millionaires. And there will be people who… Read more »

Victor
Victor
11 years ago

Excellent post, as it really makes me think about the times I pushed myself and obtained success. =) Post car-accident, I hobbled into my Bosses office. Leaning on my cane I told him “My body is broken, but my mind is sharp. Is there anything you suggest I work on to move up?” I was given the opportunity to prove myself and became MCSE in 6 months. Lots of early/late hours studying, and for that I am now in a better position. I just heard someone tell me how lucky I was. Silly people! Shara: TAKE CONTROL OF YOUR LIFE… Read more »

Andy
Andy
11 years ago

You do make your own luck. When you do the right things, good things do happen. Still, we’ve had some “Murphy” happen in our life — and we’ve been able to pay it all off with cash. We’re still on the right track. If you keep doing enough of the right things, you’ll win in the end. We’re proof, though we have a long way to go before we finally win.

Steph
Steph
11 years ago

Luck is such an odd concept. Often, we can’t even decide whether an event is good luck or bad luck (a house burns down but no one is injured, for example), but still we want to ascribe it to luck. I agree with most of the comments here that luck is what you make of it, both good and bad. My partner had an accident on his motorcycle two years ago and we wound up with about $8,000 in out of pocket medical bills. Bad luck about the accident, bad luck about the portion of bills not covered by insurance.… Read more »

Chett Daniel
Chett Daniel
11 years ago

@ Jean Pierre the title of your blog is appropriate for your shot at JD and the point he is trying to make. Maybe the final mention of “My second eulogy at tonight’s memorial service should be even better” is the part that bothered you. Why can’t someone use another persons death to inspire change, and development of others? Isn’t that the reason we celebrate MLK? I don’t think people thought to themselves “great he was assassinated, now it’s my time to shine.” He motivated people to do more with themselves and inspire change around them. I’m not trying to… Read more »

EscapeVelocity
EscapeVelocity
11 years ago

A big area of luck is, some people are passionate about doing things you can get paid a lot of money to do, and some people aren’t. The person who is driven to be a social worker may be just as passionate and work just as hard as the person who is driven to be a software engineer, but the lifestyle isn’t going to be the same.

StretchyDollar
StretchyDollar
11 years ago

I like it – if you can’t live with the way things are – get out and make your own luck.

Shara
Shara
11 years ago

@Steph Good point. It isn’t luck but LIFE. People who believe in luck often seem to have a tally sheet of *bad* luck and *good* luck, like it’s a score and you win if you have one or the other. It was *bad* luck that your partner was in an accident and *good* luck that the injuries weren’t more serious. Beyond that it wasn’t luck, but circumstances, most of them a compilation of decisions and opportunities which I don’t consider luck at all. Bad things happen, good things happen. Luck exists in the form of chance. But many people seem… Read more »

DollarDream$
DollarDream$
11 years ago

I came across a very similar article few days ago. The author talks about the same 90/10 principle.

http://www.boreme.com/boreme/funny-2006/principle-90-10-p1.php

Good discussion!

Chiot's Run
Chiot's Run
11 years ago

So true!

If you see misfortunes and misfortunes they’ll become bad luck. If you misfortunes and opportunities they usually become good luck.

I think it’s often more about personal resposibility and drive. Some people don’t want to take responsibility for the consequence of their actions, it’s easier to blame bad luck. Others don’t want to work hard and invest in themselves to make their lives better so they blame it on bad luck, not bad personal management.

km
km
11 years ago

I believe this more and more each day. Luck, positive thinking, opportunities all have been playing in my mind for a while now. I’m enjoying the process. We have built in an emergency fund and as such “bad luck” things haven’t derailed us. We have found our strengths and have maximized them. WE have also found joy. We are “lucky” 🙂 Thanks for the article

Miss M
Miss M
11 years ago

I believe a lot of luck lies in positioning yourself to take advantage of opportunities. I wrote about digging myself out of $20,000 in credit card debt in one year, I freely admit luck played some part in making that happen. But it’s not the kind of “blind luck” associated with gambling or playing the lottery. I went to college, got a degree, worked hard and built up a good reputation in my field. I was able to use those skills to negotiate a signing bonus and large raise when another company was desperate for my help. I was lucky… Read more »

Matt @ StupidCents
Matt @ StupidCents
11 years ago

I totally agree that having an acute sense of awareness will often lead to a prosperous result, thus the association of luck.

If you were to ask people to define ‘luck’, I would be surprised if there were similar answers. I would expect many people would encompass their own personal experiences to derive their own thoughts on ‘luck’ or what being lucky means to them.

‘It’s better to be lucky than good’ as the saying goes in poker.

Stupidly Yours,

Matt

Tim
Tim
11 years ago

I think there is a difference between luck and simply improving your situation. I don’t believe you make your own luck at all. I believe you improve your situation and increase the probability the outcome will be what you want. Many people think they are unlucky, because they simply do not shape their environment to better themselves. Luck is by chance that has no bearing on anything that you do.

goldsmith
goldsmith
11 years ago

Hmm… I think there IS luck, i.e. a set of circumstances just coming together without an innate logic behind this being so. But I agree that recognising, and then following up on, opportunities is a BIG factor in the lives of so-called “lucky” people. I also think that this is what Napoleon Bonaparte meant when he asked of his officers due for promotion to general: “Does he have luck?” Spotting opportunities is surely a major ability needed by a senior military officer. The opportunity-recognition thing was drilled into me by my mother, along with going the extra mile (or two,… Read more »

Ken
Ken
11 years ago

Make your own luck is what I say. You need to be open to opportunities to be lucky. Luck seldom falls in your lap. It’s often a result of seeing the opportunity and taking it before it gets away. Great post!

Adam
Adam
11 years ago

I guess I need to have a better attitude to win the lottery. Yep. No such thing as random chance.

Ian
Ian
11 years ago

This is an excellent and well timed post! Right now there are so many opportunities to be either totally afraid or totally engaged, and obviously engaged is the better way to go.

My teacher (I’m a singer) has a saying that you have two choices at every challenge: Shame or talent. You could also say death or life, no luck or luck, faithless or faithful, 0 or 1, off or on etc.

We always have the choice!

Denise
Denise
11 years ago

1000 percent true. I have always believed we make our own luck. After turning our hurricane katrina disaster into a new happy life, I believe it even more.

I once had a friend who thought everything was just handed to me and that I was super lucky. she never saw the adversity. I didn’t have any fewer obstacles than she did, she would just give up, or freak out and make bad decisions.

Your luck is the culmination of all your little decisions.

Derek
Derek
11 years ago

Agreed to a point, but it’s easy to take this idea and run with it in some wrong directions. It’s great inspiration when you want to give up, but people also use this kind of thinking to convince themselves that they’re better than other, less “successful” people or that other people “deserve” whatever bad things happen to them. Yes, it’s true that hard work makes people seem more lucky, but it’s also true that actual, honest to God chance does affect people’s lives in very real and significant ways. It’s important to remember that for the sake of both humility,… Read more »

Sara at On Simplicity
Sara at On Simplicity
11 years ago

Another perfectly good stand-in for good luck is good connections. Is it luck when you find out through back-channels about a perfect job opening? Or meet a future friend or spouse? In my opinion, not so much. It’s the result of time spent connecting with people, being genuine, and offering value. So many “lucky” events revolve around personal connections that have been cultivated over time. I’m also in the camp that will not be cutting my insurance anytime soon. No matter how awesome I may be (and let me tell you, I can be pretty awesome at times…), I can’t… Read more »

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