Success is More than Peas and Greens

It’s a venerable Southern tradition to eat black-eyed peas and turnip greens on New Year’s Day. The long-held belief is that each pea and each portion of greens will bring financial luck in the coming year. Furthermore, the proof for all this apparently lies in the fact that the peas and greens are good for the digestive system. In spite of that gastronomic revelation, the connection between digestive health and fiscal success has yet to be fully explored.

Be that as it may, ‘Good luck!’ is a fine wish of benevolence and good will. But just what is ‘luck’? I think that best answer is in the saying: ‘Luck happens when choice meets opportunity.’ The expression ‘good luck’ presupposes that we can’t control everything. My regular readers know that identifying what we can’t control is a cornerstone of sound mental health. But there’s still a lot more to life than mere luck. We have choices over what we do with whatever opportunities come our way. Look at all the innovators who made a fortune carving out a niche in some area of business that didn’t previously exist. We can learn from those who are proactive about their lives. The essence of good fortune is recognizing an opportunity, and then nurturing it over time. It’s less about ‘luck’ and more about choice.

For eight years, professor Richard Wiseman, of the University of Hertfordshire in England, studied the psychology of luck. He conducted thousands of interviews, culminating in a book called ‘The Luck Factor.’ He concludes that there really is no such thing as luck. Certain attitudes, he says, give rise to what we call luck. This particular way of looking at reality is called ‘counterfactual thinking.’ For example, after a car accident, one person will say, ‘I can’t believe I was in car accident. How unlucky I am!’ Another person with the same experience might say, ‘Yes, I had a car accident. But I wasn’t hurt, and I actually met a nice person in the other car. Who knows’there might even be a relationship there.’

Of course, there are tragic, chance events that do happen. Wiseman distinguishes between luck and chance by saying that luck is a state of mind, while chance is something real or objective. ‘Chance events are like winning the lottery. They’re events over which we have no control, other than buying a ticket. They don’t consistently happen to the same person'[and] they’re not frequent. When people say that they consistently experience good fortune, I think that, by definition, it has to be because of something they are doing.’

Wiseman makes two very important points. One is that chance (like the lottery) is devoid of choice. It makes me sad to see a person who approaches life like it’s one big lottery. They sit and they wait, in vain, hoping to win ‘their share,’ with no clue that they have any say in the process. Placing events and outcomes entirely in the hands of unseen forces is a recipe for depression if there ever was one. As one sits and waits for his or her ‘ship to come in,’ potential goes unrealized and talents go undiscovered. Outspoken Las Vegas magician Penn Jillette says it perfectly: ‘Luck is probability taken personally.’

The other important point in Professor Wiseman’s statement is that chance events (good or bad) are not all that frequent. Even though an extreme chance event could be life changing, they are so infrequent that it makes no sense to consider them as all-important. Life is more about creating and cashing-in on opportunities, than it is about reflecting on chance events. Take, for example, death (the ultimate unfortunate event). Does the fact that someday we’re all going to die prove that life is hopeless and futile? Only a profoundly depressed person would agree. The certainty of death is important once it comes, but in the flow of a mentally healthy person’s life, it’s just not that significant. You don’t dwell on it and you don’t revolve your life around it—other than to avoid it.

Professor Wiseman hits the nail on the head when he says that people who consistently experience ‘good fortune’ must be doing something right. They must be operating on a series of sound principles, such as knowing when (and why) to take risks. If you know somebody like this who seems ‘lucky,’ find out what’s right about his attitudes, thinking and decisions. If you know someone who seems to be consistently ‘unlucky,’ take an objective look at his or her lifestyle. Is it risky? Haphazard? Your observations will unlock the secrets behind their ‘luck.’

Famed moviemaker Samuel Goldwyn summed it up with his famous expression: ‘The harder I work, the luckier I get!’ You can MAKE yourself lucky by recognizing the opportunities that come your way, and shaping them into the successes you want them to be.