What is luck? Is it some ephemeral elixir that magically anoints a chosen few at birth? Maybe it’s just a math equation, and all anyone needs to create luck is sufficient knowledge of the universe (and Steven Hawking on speed dial). Or is it more closely related to what card counters do in Vegas? If you believe the first two explanations, you will never be lucky. The third, however, is all about creating an edge, a slight advantage that you are aware of and can act upon. Since card counting is an acquired skill, is it possible to train yourself to be lucky?
You sure can. But first, let’s get something straight. If you really believe that your life is being controlled by mysterious, malevolent forces and you’re not sitting on a nice comfy couch right now spilling your guts to a guy with a notepad, you should be. Shrinks call this condition “external locus of control”, where someone believes they have a predetermined destiny and nothing can alter it. I call this condition, well, you know what I call this condition. It’s a slam dunk, money back guaranteed recipe for a life sentence in Losertown. Blame the alignment of the stars, blame supernatural deities, blame your parents – blame everything but yourself. Luck is random, just like life. If you never find yourself in the fast checkout line, invited to fun parties, or getting promoted at work, isn’t there a pretty good chance that it’s totally your fault?
So let’s assume I’m correct again. It’s all your fault. What can be done?
British Psychologist Richard Wiseman conducted a fascinating study back in the 90s about luck. He recruited 400 volunteers, with half describing themselves as lucky and the other half unlucky. He gave everyone a newspaper and asked them to count the photographs. Strangely enough, the lucky people had the answer in seconds, while the unlucky group took several minutes, with some counting several times to be sure. How were the lucksters done so quickly? On the second page of the newspaper Professor Wiseman provided the answer, “There are 43 photographs in this newspaper.” In two inch high black type. The sentence filled literally half the page, but for some reason the vast majority of the unlucky group didn’t even see it – they just kept counting. The lucky folks were all over it. Weird, huh?
Following his studies, the Professor identified four traits that were common among lucky people:
- An awareness of their environment and what it offers
- Listening and trusting their intuition
- A generally positive life outlook
- Resilience and the ability to learn from experience
He theorized that unlucky people miss positive “chance” opportunities (like the answer to the photograph question) because they have a much higher level of tension and anxiety than the general populace. Anxiety also reduces people’s ability to handle the unexpected. If you are worried about getting rained on you won’t see the $100 bill on the sidewalk. Lucky people are open to new experiences and the possible benefits, and they also have better intuition. It’s one thing to notice a chance opportunity, but some are to be avoided. If someone in a ski mask holding a bag of money approaches your car, it’s probably not the time to reconsider your policy on hitchhiking. The Luck Club is also more positive. By looking at the bright side of a situation, they avoid that self-fulfilling death spiral of fatalism. The last quality that seems to help generate good luck is resilience – if something goes wrong, learn from it and don’t repeat it. When I hear a whiny sentence that begins “Every time I do that”, my answer instantly erupts from every pore – if it’s making you miserable why do you keep doing it!!!
So, yes, like card counting, luck can be learned. Adopt the four habits in the previous paragraph, get the edge, and be that lucky SOB everyone hates. At least you’ll make me proud.
“Madness comes from God, whereas sober sense is merely human.” Plato
This quote from Phaedrus was written almost 2,400 years ago, so the idea that gifted people are cuckoo for cocoa puffs has been around since dirt was a boy. Interestingly, ancient Greece didn’t even have a word for genius – Plato used “madness” to describe how poets produce great work, but the idea is the same. Brilliance in poetry (and later in art, science, literature, etc.) originates from a place not of the “normal” world.
I know what you’re thinking. Is it really possible that only the unbalanced can produce beautiful melodies, elegant designs, or insightful analyses? Not at all – that’s crazy talk. Or is it? As a public service to you, my esteemed readers, I looked it up. And believe it or not, there is a medical explanation. Swedish Professor Fredrik Ullen and others have conducted studies confirming that the number of dopamine receptors in highly creative people is similar to that of schizophrenics. The short version of what this may mean is that creative people are capable of greater divergence of thought than the rest of us due to less filtering in the cognition and reason center of the brain. This could lead to (for example) enhanced problem solving, the ability to see unusual connections and patterns, and the boldness required to act on these in a public way.
So does this explain the Kurt Cobains and Hunter Thompsons and L’Wren Scotts of the world?
It kinda does. But back to my original question – why be crazy if you’re great at what you do? I find it simultaneously sad and ironic that brilliant minds with gifts for all of us decide to close up shop. To me, these people already possess the very qualities that give life its spark. Think about the common refrains of early check-outs – the first is the perception that somehow, the person is alone. And of course, if one is alone, then no one will miss you. A great writer doesn’t need to hide in a dark, smoky attic to create. Today there are countless opportunities to connect with people of similar interests, both online and in person. Take advantage! Join these groups and commiserate. Let people critique your work and critique theirs. Get new ideas – if the theory I’ve described on creativity is true, just think of the potential for explosive, mind-bending brilliance if an entire network of these folks worked together. But most importantly, there is no alone.
The other stereotypical lament is the belief that the person is a burden. I have two problems with this – the first is it doesn’t make sense (how can you be a burden if you’re alone?) But my second problem is resolved by my answer to the first one. Being connected with a group having similar interests means you are being productive and helping others as you help yourself. Rather than being a burden, you are an irreplaceable cog in the machine of mastery, churning out the songs and sonnets that make our synapses fire with joyful abandon. Burden? No. Blessing.
So embrace your creativity and channel it productively. Bounce it off of people for feedback. Share it with people you trust, and do the same for them. You have gifts and the means to use them. Dr. Ullen says it best, “Thinking outside the box might be facilitated by having a somewhat less intact box.”
Well put, Doc.