Some people just seem lucky, while others seem constantly unlucky. Or are they? In the business world, perhaps the most outrageous 'luck' story is that of Fedex founder Frederick W Smith. In 1974, three years after founding Fedex, it was on the verge of failing with just $5,000 to its name, meaning they would be unable to fuel their planes the following week. After a last ditch attempt to acquire funding failed, Smith went to Las Vegas and used the $5,000 to play blackjack, turning in to $32,000 keeping Fedex flying for three more days, buying enough time to find another investor. The market worth of Fedex is now $49 billion. When asked if his behaviour in using the last of Fedex's money to gamble in Las Vegas Smith said:
What difference does it make? Without the funds for the fuel companies, we couldn’t have flown anyway.
So was he just lucky?
Luck has obsessed mankind for pretty much ever. Think of all the superstitions we have: 'touch wood', the number 13 and walking under ladders to name but a few. But what exactly is luck?
While attributed to many more modern actors, it was the Roman stoic philosopher Seneca who said:
Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.
In the 19th century, Napoleon is reported to have said:
I know he is a good general, but is he lucky?
Believing that luck was an indispensable ally of a soldier and a quality that could be possessed. Meanwhile golfers Gary Player, Arnold Palmer and Jerry Barber are all variously attributed with originating the aphorism:
The harder I practice, the luckier I get.
So what is the truth about luck? The best answer that I know of comes from Richard Wiseman, Professor of the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire, who conducted a 10 year study of luck and concluded that luck was in reality a self made outcome, achieved in the following fashion:
My research revealed that lucky people generate their own good fortune via four basic principles. They are skilled at creating and noticing chance opportunities, make lucky decisions by listening to their intuition, create self-fulfilling prophesies via positive expectations, and adopt a resilient attitude that transforms bad luck into good.
Wiseman goes on to note:
...unlucky people miss chance opportunities because they are too focused on looking for something else. They go to parties intent on finding their perfect partner and so miss opportunities to make good friends. They look through newspapers determined to find certain type of job advertisements and as a result miss other types of jobs. Lucky people are more relaxed and open, and therefore see what is there rather than just what they are looking for.
Another key factor Wiseman notes is to adopt a resilient attitude that transforms bad luck into good. How? Well on Boxing Day, my boiler broke down and when I could eventually get a plumber to come out, I found out it would be four days before he could get the part and fit it, and as you might remember, we had a real cold snap at that time. Unlucky? While I had thought that I had lost hot water and heating, it turned out that my system being old (so not a combi) also had an electric immersion heater option so I did in fact have hot water even with a broken boiler, which I considered lucky (and I wore three fleeces to combat the cold which was no real hardship).
Then it turned out that the part I needed was a replacement fan, and the bill for that and fitting it was a hefty £500. Unlucky? At least the boiler didn't need replacing as that would have cost me thousands, so with my £500 bill I again felt very lucky as I had 'got off lightly'. And now I had heating again.
The real peculiarity of the situation is that if the boiler had not broken down, I would not have felt lucky that it had not broken down, whereas when it did break down, it provided an opportunity for me to feel lucky twice over. Seemingly paradoxically then, I was left feeling that I am a lucky person precisely because my boiler did break down!
What I did of course was actively transform something that might be considered bad luck into good luck by thinking about the situation differently, seeing another perspective. Unsurprisingly, there is a psychological term associated with this, it is cognitive reframing. According to Wiki:
Cognitive reframing is a psychological technique that consists of identifying and then disputing irrational or maladaptive thoughts. Reframing is a way of viewing and experiencing events, ideas, concepts and emotions to find more positive alternatives.
Being lucky is actually a skill set, and like any skill, you choose if you want to employ it, you can get better at it, and it can be developed with practice. Accordingly, if you want to become a luckier person, try doing what the Professor suggests. Perhaps the next time you are invited to a party and are tempted to say no, say yes instead. Who knows, you might get lucky, however you define it.
If you want to know more about how to become a lucky person, you can read more on the subject in Prof Wiseman's book The Luck Factor.