Well, the new year is upon us. Did you eat your black-eyed peas and turnip greens? Apparently, peas and greens bring financial luck in the coming year. Furthermore, they’re good for the digestive system. (The correlation 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. But just what is luck? I like this answer: “Luck happens when choice meets opportunity.” Good luck presupposes that we can’t control everything. My regular readers know that identifying what we can (and cannot) control is a cornerstone of sound mental health. But there’s a lot more to life than mere luck.
We have choices! 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; who recognized an opportunity and nurtured 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. Thousands of interviews culminated in a book called “The Luck Factor” where he concludes that certain attitudes give rise to what we call luck. Those attitudes are called “counterfactual thinking.” For example, after a minor car accident, one person will say, “How unlucky I am!” Another person with the same experience might say, “Well, 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 events that do happen by chance. 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 things 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, it has to be because of something they are doing.”
Wiseman makes two 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 — and wait — hoping to win “their share,” with no clue that they have any say in the process. Placing events entirely in the hands of unseen forces is a sure recipe for depression. As one pines 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 opportunities than it is about reflecting on chance events. Take, for example, death (the ultimate unfortunate event). Does the fact that someday we’re going to die prove that life is hopeless? 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 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, e.g., operating on a series of sound principles like knowing when (and why) to take risks. If you know somebody who seems lucky, find out what’s right about his thinking. If you know someone who seems to be consistently unlucky, take an objective look at her lifestyle. Is it 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!” So, I hope you enjoyed your peas and greens, but go ahead and make yourself lucky by recognizing opportunities and shaping them into the successes you want them to be.
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