Prepare to Be Lucky
Be open to opportunity. . . . Get the information you need. . . . See what you're not seeing. . . . Drive to the intersection of chance, talent, and hard work.
Barnaby's Luck Lab at the Institute for Advanced Study was tucked away amid the beautiful wooded fields of Princeton, New Jersey-a perfect place for thinking big thoughts about the science of making luck. As we took a walk together through the peaceful grounds one morning, Barnaby told me that Albert Einstein wandered these same tree-lined paths while mulling over his famous theories. Our new ideas might not disrupt the theory of relativity, but we hoped they would change the way people thought about luck-and the possibilities for their own futures.
It had rained hard the previous night, and the sun hadn't yet dried out the wet ground. Scooting around a puddle, I told Barnaby that writing my previous book The Gratitude Diaries had taught me that we have more control over our own happiness than we sometimes realize. I was delighted that the book had inspired so many people to lead happier lives, and I had a feeling that understanding how to make yourself lucky-under any circumstances-could have a similar effect.
Barnaby nodded. "If you're driven to make your life a little better and wonder why things don't always go your way, our new approach will let you claim the luck that should be yours."
We both agreed that luck isn't the same as random chance. If you flip a coin ten times to determine your future, you are relying on chance-and most people would agree that's pretty silly. If you talk to people, prepare yourself, look for opportunity, and then jump on the unexpected events that might (randomly) appear, you are making luck. And that's what we all need to do.
"Luck isn't a zero-sum game. There's plenty of luck for everyone if you know where and how to look for it," Barnaby said.
Barnaby thought the evidence was pretty clear that luck is not passive-it requires action, and many events that may seem like random chance are not so random after all. He was convinced that by understanding the underlying dynamics of luck, you can gain control over aspects of your life that once seemed to depend on chance, fate, or the phases of the moon. We would work together using insights and recent discoveries in psychology, behavioral economics, mathematics, and neuroscience to develop a new way of understanding luck.
"We're at the starting point of a brand-new field, and instead of finding the research, we're going to have to create it," he said.
The Luck Lab was the right place to do this, since the Institute for Advanced Study, where Barnaby has an academic appointment, is famous as a font for big ideas. Over the years, it has attracted geniuses from around the world-and it's fun to drive around local streets named after many of them.Along with Einstein, the great mathematician and philosopher Kurt Gšdel was a professor there, and so was the early computer scientist and game theory pioneer John von Neumann. Renowned theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, also known for his work building the first atomic bomb at Los Alamos National Laboratory, was a longtime director.
And Barnaby and I felt we were the right team to tackle the project. We had very different backgrounds and life experiences. I've had a successful career as a journalist, magazine editor, and TV producer in the New York City area and raised two terrific sons with my handsome doctor-husband. Barnaby grew up in Alaska and was homeschooled until he started college-at which point he launched into academic and career experiences that took him around the globe. He became a top executive at a major foundation that gives away $100 million a year. A quirky and original thinker, he knows more people than anybody I've ever met. He recently settled in New York City with his wife, Michelle, and their two very young and adorable daughters-though "settled" is never the right word for him.
We hoped our research in luck would be powerful and game-changing and give people a new view of their own lives and experiences. Barnaby had already been coming up with strategies about opportunity and risk and effort and how these affect your ability to transform your future. It was all very erudite and heady, and my job would be to bring it down to earth and see how the theories worked in everyday life.
As a practical schedule, Barnaby would escape to this ivoriest of towers every Monday and Tuesday to make conceptual models and try to develop theories of luck that worked across all contexts-whether you were trying to get a job, find a mate, or survive as a species in the evolutionary sweepstakes. On Wednesdays we would meet and talk them through. Along the way, I would find the academics, entrepreneurs, and celebrities who could illustrate the points and help us both see how people could wittingly or not make luck happen for themselves.
By the end of the year, we would know exactly what it takes to make yourself lucky. This new science of luck would have straightforward principles that would work to make things go better in all aspects of your life.
ÒBeyond the theoretical work, itÕs important to understand the right actions to take so you can put yourself on the luck-making path and create the destiny you want for yourself,Ó Barnaby said.
We were so engrossed in conversation that we hardly noticed how muddy we were getting as we slipped and slid along the (actual) path where we were walking. By the end, my canvas shoes were thoroughly soaked and caked with dirt.
"Luck may be like gratitude in that a lot depends on your perspective," I told Barnaby as we emerged from the woods. "I consider this a very lucky walk in that we have exciting ideas and a good plan. But someone else might see it as unlucky that I have to throw away my shoes."
He smiled. "Sacrifices are always made in the name of science."
I looked down at my muddy feet. Part of luck was about finding new opportunities. Compared to that, finding new shoes shouldn't be very hard.
A couple of days after we got back from Princeton, Barnaby suggested I take a first shot at seeing how our basic theory worked in practice. If we were right that you make your own luck, could I try to get lucky on one particular day?
For this experiment I didn't need a blackboard full of equations. I would simply try to create my own luck.
My day didn't look to be very exciting. I planned to do a few errands in the morning, then go to Penn Station and catch a train to visit my wonderful mother-in-law.
"Does any part of that sound lucky to you?" I asked Barnaby.
It also happened to be Friday, May 13th-not the obvious day to have beautiful opportunities fall from the sky.
But Barnaby asked me to set out on my day with a slightly different perspective than usual. He gave me some basic guidelines for luck: I should stay attentive to opportunities, be prepared for anything, and try the unexpected.
"And luck will just rain down on me?" I asked dubiously.
Since it was already storming outside, it would have been better for some sunshine to appear. But a challenge is a challenge, and I was intrigued.
My day started unremarkably with visits to the post office and drugstore, and then I headed to Penn Station. I had left plenty of time and arrived early (way too early) for my 10:15 a.m. train. Penn Station is grim and dreary, and hanging out there didn't feel very lucky at all.
But with the advice to be prepared, I had studied the train schedule and knew there was an earlier train at 9:46. I didn't think there was time to make it-but why not try?
When I ran to the gate, the escalator was (mysteriously) going up from the track, not down to it. I dashed over to a security guard hanging out nearby and asked what to do.
"You have to go all the way around to the other side and take the staircase," he said.
I felt momentarily defeated-the train was leaving in about one minute, and the corridor to the other side looked long. But I thought of a high school coach who used to cheer, "Go for it! Take a chance!" So I ran around the station to the staircase, galumphed down the steps, and got onto the train a moment before the doors closed.
I felt a surge of triumph. It was a small victory, but I had made it happen.
Wait a minute. Was that the secret? I could control more than I realized?
A week earlier, I had been in almost the identical situation and hadn't hustled quite as much. The train door literally slammed in my face. That felt like an unlucky day, while this one suddenly felt much more positive.
With the train success in my mind, I felt a surge of confidence. I arrived at the other end earlier than planned, so I took a pleasant walk to my mother-in-law's apartment (the rain had even stopped) rather than taking a cab. We went out for lunch and chatted cheerfully with the waitress at the diner. I thanked her for making me a salad that wasn't on the menu and confided that I was trying to make lucky things happen all day. At dessert, the waitress brought over a chocolate cupcake with a candle in it.
"This one's on us. A lucky day is worth celebrating," the waitress said.
Catching an earlier train and getting a free chocolate cupcake weren't exactly earth-shattering events. But on a Friday the thirteenth, they definitely counted on the good side of luck.
When I reported this story to Barnaby the next day, I was somewhere between amazed and baffled. I was starting to agree that luck isn't a magical and mystical force that falls from the sky-it's something that we can (at least partly) create for ourselves. That's fairly stunning to realize, since most of us sit back and hope for good luck when we really should be taking the right steps to make it happen. The sharp-tongued Australian novelist Christina Stead noted in 1938 that "a self-made man is one who believes in luck and sends his children to Oxford." In other words, chance plays a role in life, but it's not everything. The foundations for luck are set by our own actions-what we try, whom we talk to, how fast we decide to run for the train.
If luck is all around us, waiting to be found, then we had to stop walking right by it or whizzing past in our SUVs. Lucky occurrences usually aren't as haphazard as they may first appear. It's true that fortune is not fairly distributed and some options are beyond your control. I had been born in the United States to middle-class parents who wanted me to advance, and in the history of the world, that counted as an enormous, unbelievable privilege. But no matter how you start out or where you hope to land, knowing the dynamics of chance changes . . . well, your chances.
"You can uncover the luck, grab it for yourself, and share it with friends!" Barnaby told me now.
To make good luck, you need the right information so you can prepare for the right actions. Knowing the possible steps keeps you from being buffeted by forces you can't control and gives you power over more aspects of your life. We often have greater control over our future than we realize. It was exciting to think that I didn't have to wait for lucky days-I could make them.
Barnaby and I decided to launch our project with a national survey on luck-and we put it together carefully to make sure it would be wide-ranging and statistically significant. When the results started coming in, we were surprised-and also delighted. Fully 82 percent of people believed that they had some or great influence over the luck in their lives. Only 5 percent thought that no matter what they did, they couldnÕt change their luck. So our belief that you could make luck happen fit in with an overall American attitude that random events may occur, but that doesnÕt mean life is out of your control. You just have to learn the right approaches.
Finding those right approaches was our big challenge-because luck is in the details. The great scientist Louis Pasteur once pointed out that "Luck favors the prepared mind." A wise thought-but he never said what the preparation looks like. So we would try to fill in the blanks and uncover the step-by-step process for preparing to be lucky.
When I mentioned to my friend Liz that I was learning how to create luck for myself, she immediately asked if I was buying a lottery ticket. But a lottery is not a good model for luck in the rest of life. Even though it's been around since the days of the Roman empire and ropes in millions of buyers (and dreamers), a lottery is just a game that raises money and hopes. You buy a ticket, and then everything else is left to chance. There are crazy odds against you and nothing you can do about them. (Some Australians found one thing they could do to win. But we'll get to that later.)
In the big matters that make us seem truly fortunate in life-a good job, a happy family, and a feeling of success-life isn't a lottery at all. Random chance does play a part in our lives and serendipitous events occur that you can't easily explain, but chance is just one element of the luck picture. If you think about luck as strictly random events, you're missing the bigger point. To get lucky, you need to put aside what you can't control and focus on the other elements that are completely under your control.
When I visited Barnaby at the Luck Lab the next time, he took me over to the math library, where he liked to work. Library stacks are often dark, but he had a favorite table by a bay window where light poured in-and the office where Albert Einstein had worked was just below us.
"We probably have a better view than he did," Barnaby said cheerfully.
Inspired by the ghost of genius past, we talked about successful people we knew and tried to tease out the elements that made them lucky. Certain traits-like smarts, determination, energy, and original thinking-got repeated over and over. Chance sometimes played a role-good timing and all that-but it never stood alone.