Tuesday, January 4, 2011


Do you consider yourself to be lucky or unlucky? And is part of being lucky “simply the attitude taken towards life’s events, good and bad”? For this brief post I’m drawing on Martin Cohen’s book Mind Games (Wiley, 2010); he in turn is relying on Richard Wiseman’s The Luck Factor.

Wiseman conducted an experiment in which he divided people into two groups, depending on how they viewed themselves (lucky or unlucky). He then asked everyone to look in a newspaper and report how many photographs were in it. “On average, he found, the unlucky people took about two minutes to count the photographs whereas the lucky people took just a matter of seconds.”

Why the huge disparity between the two groups? “It was because the second page of the newspaper contained the prominent announcement: ‘Stop counting – There are 43 photographs in this newspaper.’ Anyone spotting this was saved a lot of bother. But the unlucky ones tended not to spot it as they worked slowly through the pages.”

Wiseman claims that his experiment shows that “unlucky people are less able to spot opportunities than their fortunate companions. It is part of his general theory that discerns certain key characteristics for being lucky, all of which are possible to learn.

1 Create and spot opportunities.

2 Allow chance (or is it really your subconscious?) to work for you by using your ‘intuition’.

3 Create positive outcomes by starting with positive expectations.

4 Turn bad luck into good by being tenacious and persistent.” (p. 96)

Of course, we might add to this something from the spate of similar adages: “The more I practice, the luckier I get”; “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”

A final point: We don’t always agree on when we have been lucky. As Cohen writes, “people judge luck not by outcome but by expectation. For instance, psychologists have found that amongst Olympic champions, the second placed are not necessarily more content than those who came in third… On the contrary, the silver medallists focus on the gold medal so near and yet so far, ruing their lack of that little bit more speed or whatever, whilst the bronze medallist is very pleased with their lot, thinking of how they might easily have come in fourth and got nothing at all.” (p. 97)

So do you feel lucky? (We need not add the Dirty Harry line, “Well, do ya punk?”) Perhaps in light of Wiseman’s research we can rethink the statement by Jim Simons of Renaissance Technology fame: "Luck," he told a gathering of potential investors,"is largely responsible for my reputation for genius. I don’t walk into the office in the morning and say, 'Am I smart today?' I walk in and wonder 'Am I lucky today?'"

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