Nina Spencer

What’s Luck Got To Do With it? How to get lucky at work and elsewhere

"Some guys have all the luck... some guys have all the pain," so sang The Persuaders in 1973 and Rod Stewart in 1984. Why is it that some people do seem luckier than others? Why is it that some of those "nice guys" really do seem to finish last? Karma? Destiny? Luck? Believe it or not, feeling and thinking yourself "lucky" at work or elsewhere--feeling blessed with good fortune--is a predictor of your level of success and joy in life.

A few years ago Professor Richard Wiseman of University of Hertfordshire, England, was so intrigued about this subject, he set out on a "lucky" expedition of his own. Dr. Wiseman placed advertisements in newspapers asking people who felt consistently lucky or unlucky to contact him. Hundreds of extraordinary men and women volunteered for interviews, life monitoring and participation in research experiments.

Dr. Wiseman's results revealed that although these volunteers had almost no insight into the causes of their luck, their thoughts and behaviour were responsible for much of their good and bad fortune. It was the 'ole self-fulfilling prophecy all over again.

When it comes to, for example, the case of seemingly chance opportunities, Dr. Wiseman determined lucky people consistently encounter such experiences, whereas unlucky people do not. Are these opportunities available to all people? Is it merely a matter of honing one's ability to observe and act on opportunities or is there really some "magical" aura around some and not others?

To examine these questions further Dr. Wiseman gave both lucky and unlucky people a newspaper, and asked each group to look through each section, reporting back on how many photographs were noted. He secretly placed a large message halfway through the newspaper saying, "Tell the experimenter you have seen this and win $250." This message took up half of one page and was written in type that was more than two inches high. Another large message also appeared in the newspaper, revealing the exact number of photographs. You guessed it... the people who missed the first message also missed the second! Although these large print messages stared all participants in the face, those who believed themselves unlucky to begin with tended to miss the messages, while those who declared themselves lucky tended to spot the blatant flags.

Dr. Wiseman reported that unlucky people are generally tenser than lucky people; this anxiety disrupts their ability to notice the unexpected.

Are you lucky at work? In private life? What is your current day-in and day-out anxiety level? Could you, by chance (no pun intended) be undermining your own good fortune with career opportunities, projects, business and personal relationships and opportunities simply because of pent up anxiety? And perhaps a better question still... what can you do to reduce your workplace anxiety or stress and get luckier?

These unlucky people, who missed the experimenter's big give away, are the same people who miss opportunities because they're too focused on looking for something else. Has that ever happened to you? As Dr. Wiseman suggested, "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 types of job advertisements and miss other types of jobs." How many times have you come across colleagues (or maybe even yourself?) who bellyache about their current positions--seeing all that is wrong--to the point where they miss the opportunity to appreciate the valuable work experience and professional lessons they're gaining right then and there? "Self-fulfilling prophecy" suggests what you think about comes about. A Zen-like way of expressing this same sentiment proposes, "What you think about expands," or, to put it yet another way, "Be careful what you wish for because you just might get it!" Dr. Wiseman's research illustrated that lucky people are more relaxed and open and therefore see what is actually there--in their reality... in front of their faces--rather than that for which they're wishing, looking, imagining or hoping.

According to Dr. Wiseman, lucky people generate good fortune via four principles. "They are skilled at creating and noticing chance opportunities, make lucky decisions by listening to their intuition, create self-fulfilling prophecies via positive expectations and adopt a resilient attitude that transforms bad luck into good."

Here are four top tips for becoming lucky:

  1. Listen to your gut instincts - they're normally right. The next time you have a sense that you should be doing this instead of that, or saying this instead of the other... run with it. See what happens. Watch for what I playfully call "omens," e.g., if, for some out-of-the blue reason, I think of a friend or client with whom I haven't connected for a while, I call it an "omen" and pick up the phone or send an email right away. It always amazes me how timely my call turns out to be.
  2. Be open to new experiences and breaking your normal routine. Go to work a different way... or go home from work a different way. Or take a different mode of transportation, if possible. If you always speak up at meetings, be extra quiet and listen harder next time. If you are usually subdued in meetings, be a verbal and active participant at the next.
  3. Spend time each day remembering things that went well. Here's a great dinnertime exercise: Have a "go around" the table, asking each family member (or friend with whom you are dining) to "list two good things that happened to you today." Everyone gets to say... even four year olds and grandmas! If you are willing to play along you will find at least two good things to report. Guaranteed. And, who knows, you may even be able to find two more bonus things on which to report too.
  4. Visualize yourself being lucky before an important meeting, telephone call or event. Luck is very often a self-fulfilling prophecy. Every sports coach knows this trick and has coached their athletes to do the same. It can work at work too. Time Magazine calls meditation/visualization the "smart person's bubble bath." Millions of adults, worldwide, now more than ever, practice some form of regular meditation, closed-eyed visualization or other type of repeat and dedicated practice to elevate their insights, competencies, talent, expertise and "luck." It feeds a relaxed attitude about life and that expands resilience and builds momentum for the cycle of good fortune. Consider reading Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham and the Science of Success, by Matthew Syed, to reinforce these ideas further.

Some have criticized Professor Wiseman's research by saying he confused luck and success, suggesting if something caused good luck then, by definition, it was not luck. They argued that luck is a chance happening, where the outcome is governed purely by outside, uncontrollable factors; so rolling a double seven is lucky, paying attention while reading a newspaper is not. Others challenged there is no such thing as luck--only chance, saying it's the outcome of chance occurrences to which people will then attribute judgments such as lucky or unlucky--and that this is very much reflected by their personality or state of mind. Luck, they may say, is not a universal law or property. People who regard themselves as lucky reveal more about their attitude towards life than to any inherent luck.

Lucky people expect success and good fortune often emerges like a phoenix from the ashes of a problem. Think of a time where you experienced a devastating or sad set back (at work or in private life), but from which you later recovered (either physically, mentally and/or emotionally), and then proceeded to see the hidden benefits of that devastating event, e.g., someone loses their job; at first it's awful--perhaps even causing a depression--but, a year or so later you see that person on the street and more times than not they will report, "It was the best thing that could have happened to me!" There it is... the fortune out of the ashes.

While accepting his first of thirteen Grammy awards, Duke Ellington said, "I merely took the energy it takes to pout and then wrote some blues." Out of some misery came sweet music and a fabulous and much lauded career. Lucky people have automatic psychological techniques to cope and thrive in unfavorable situations; the good news is this, even if you're not born with such a lucky mind-set, you can train your brain to "think positively... to think lucky!"

This is the lucky week to start getting luckier! Embrace or borrow the "Luck of the Irish" today, this March 17th--St. Patrick's Day--and make this date the day you start a lucky plan, just in time for spring. Commit to a new way of thinking for limbering up your luck muscle a bit more and take your own professional and personal luck to new heights. Go on... you've got everything to gain!


Those who have succeeded at anything and don't mention luck are kidding themselves.
-- Larry King, American Talk Show Host


Everything in life is luck.
-- Donald Trump, American Billionaire Entrepreneur


Luck is believing you're lucky.
-- Tennessee Williams, American Playwright


I am a great believer in luck and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.
-- Stephen Leacock, Classic Canadian Humourist


Luck occurs when preparedness meets opportunity.
-- Unknown


People who want milk should not seat themselves in the middle of a field in hope that a cow will back up to them.
-- Elbert Hubbard


Miracles are great but they are so unpredictable.
-- Peter Drucker, American Organizational Development Guru


I skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it has been.
-- Wayne Gretzky, Canadian Hockey Superstar

Chance is always powerful. Let your hook be always cast; in the pool where you least expect it, there will be a fish. -- Ovid, Ancient Latin Philosopher

And, Lastly... Nina's Slightly Modified Lucky Irish Blessing for You, (because on March 17th, isn't it great fun to be Irish for a day?):

May the road rise to meet you,

may the wind be always at your back,

may the sunshine warm upon your face,

the rains fall soft upon your fields and,

until we meet again, (with my next edition of, Working Wisdom),

may God hold you in the palm of His hand.