Lucky shot

Lucky four-leafed clover

How lucky is that?

On my recent trip to New York  I visited a number of interesting places that made me think about how people deal with change. (I know! Even on holiday I’m generating material for blog posts! How sad!).

I also read a book that made me think about luck. This blog post is an attempt to put all that thinking into one place in preparation for a possible training session on navigating change.

Running towards and running from

Ellis Island is a regular tourist spot for people visiting New York. It was the processing station for millions of immigrants hoping to enter the US for a new life. Some of these people were ‘running towards’ something — seeking the new opportunities that were only available in a young country.  Others were ‘running from’ something — they were trying to escape persecution or oppression in their home countries.

Whether you are driven into change by a desire to run towards or away from something can make a big difference to your chances of success.

Holding on to the past

The next place we went to was the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. This area became a ghetto for many of the new immigrants in the late 1800s and early 1900s. A small, three-roomed apartment would serve as a home to large families, as well as being a workplace and boarding house for other members of the immigrant community.

Many of the people came to this area as first generation immigrants. They lived this way because they wanted to be with people from their own culture. They wanted to speak their original language and maintain their traditional customs and observances. Often they would try to find work that was similar to what they had done in their old countries.

One group of immigrants, though, was lucky. Eastern European Jews came to the States with the skills of tailoring and retailing. And they happened to hit one of the biggest booms in the garment industry in the history of the USA. The work was hard and conditions were appalling, but there were chances to prosper for those with an eye for the right opportunity. Within two generations, the Jewish garment makers and retailers were able to finance their children to become doctors and lawyers.

Changing identity

The next place on our itinerary is the Merchant’s House Museum. This was the house of  one Seabury Treadwell. He left his family’s farm and came to New York to establish himself as a successful importer of hardware. He became so wealthy that he was able to afford an impressive house to the north of the expanding city (in the area that was to become Greenwich Village).

In order to make this transition from farmer’s son to wealthy merchant he had to undergo a change of identity — lifestyle, clothes, manners. But he was also lucky. His move into importing coincided with a boom period in the American shipping industry following the US wresting control of its shipping lanes from the British Royal Navy.

Unfortunately, his successors were less able to adapt. As the city grew and the richer families moved further out to more fashionable areas uptown, the Treadwells remained stuck in the same area. The last remaining Treadwell (Gertrude) died in the house in 1933.

The Luck Factor

Part of my reading material for the trip was The Luck Factor by Richard Wiseman. For a little taste of the book see this blog post.

In the book Wiseman, once a performing magician and now a psychological researcher and author, describes his research into ‘lucky’ and ‘unlucky’ people. As a result of these investigations he proposes that one’s luck can be influenced by certain attitudes and behaviours.

Principle one: Maximise your chance opportunities. Lucky people create, notice and act upon the chance opportunities in their life.

  • Lucky people build and maintain a strong ‘network of luck’
  • Lucky people have a relaxed attitude towards life
  • Lucky people are open to new experiences in their life

Principle two: Listen to your lucky hunches. Lucky people make successful decisions by using their intuition and gut feelings.

  • Lucky people listen to their gut feelings and hunches
  • Lucky people take steps to boost their intuition

Principle three: Expect good fortune. Lucky people’s expectations about the future help them fulfil their dreams and ambitions.

  • Lucky people expect their good luck to continue into the future
  • Lucky people attempt to achieve their goals even if their chances of success seem slim, and persevere in the face of failure
  • Lucky people expect their interactions with others to be lucky and successful

Principle four: Turn your bad luck into good. Lucky people are able to transform their bad luck into good fortune.

  • Lucky people see the positive side of their bad luck
  • Lucky people are convinced that any ill fortune in their life will, in the long run, turn out for the best
  • Lucky people do not dwell on their ill fortune
  • Lucky people take constructive steps to prevent more bad luck in the future

I have a few quibbles with the book. As a good psychologist, rather than saying ‘lucky people’ or ‘unlucky people’ Wiseman really should have said ‘people who self-report as lucky or unlucky’. It’s really about whether people perceive themselves as lucky, not about whether they are more fortunate in a more objective way. Having said that, he presents some quite interesting evidence that people’s attitudes to luck can influence the opportunities they generate and whether they take advantage of them. (Regular readers of this blog will immediately notice similarities to elements of Planned Happenstance theory.)

I felt that the weakest bit of the book was about lucky hunches. Much of the ‘evidence’ seemed to be subjective and anecdotal rather than a ‘scientific’ exploration of whether people using their intuition made consistently better decisions.

Intrinsic and extrinsic luck

Wiseman implies that if you change your attitudes and behaviours, you will become more lucky. Seabury Treadwell and the successful Jewish immigrants certainly seem to have demonstrated many of the qualities identified by Wiseman. These qualities allowed them to take advantage of the opportunities offered them. But these explosive opportunities had to exist in the outside world not just in the heads of ‘lucky’ people.

  • Do you think that luck is something that can be learnt?
  • Should we be teaching our clients how to be lucky?
  • Do you think that the current labour market offers many opportunities for people to be lucky with?
  • Do you consider yourself to be lucky or unlucky?

Related posts: Outliers, A New Hope

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  1. #1 by Vinny on 29 October 2010 - 12:12

    I just read a comment posted on one of your previous posts (non-stop action). It seems you are very lucky indeed! Not only have you been offered a free book, but have also been handed a possible subject for another blog post!
    I can’t help noticing that in getting this recent stroke of luck, you seemed to follow some of the principles of the luck factor.

    Principle one: Your smiley face icon was an outward sign of your relaxed approach to life
    Principle two: You appeared to have a hunch that your request might just pay off
    Principle three: By asking for a free book, you appear either to have positive expectations of how sucessful you might be or alternatively, thought it was unlikely but persevered anyway.
    Presumably had you failed, you would have seen the positive side.

    So congratulations on your good luck, but it seems to me like you created it yourself.

    The tricky bit is how to teach students to be lucky. I think it is much wider than teaching them a few principles. It goes to the core of someone’s overall attitude. I’m not sure I know too many techniques within the short sessions I have with clients which can dramatically alter whether someone is an optimist or a pessimist.

    I’m a lucky optimist myself and I don’t believe that being an optimist/pessimist is fixed and unchanging in someones lifetime or is independent from their circumstances. Therefore if anyone has any ideas of how, within a careers discussion I can make people more lucky, then I’m all ears!

    • #2 by David Winter on 29 October 2010 - 17:36

      You’re also lucky that I spotted your missing apostrophe and corrected it for you.

      • #3 by Vinny on 1 November 2010 - 09:41

        Thanks! Thats very lucky!

  2. #4 by Liz Wilkinson on 18 November 2010 - 17:12

    It seems to me that an underestimated skill is the wisdom to recognise the good fortune in many situations, which often leads to thoughts about how to capitalise on the luck and more accurate self-perception (is it me or is it the environment?). I really liked Gladwell’s Outliers on this.

    On your question about the opportunity for luck in the current labour market, my personal view would be that more constrained environments require more active swimming than floating on rising tides but in human affairs I believe there is always luck available and individuals with the gift of exploiting it.

  3. #5 by David Winter on 21 March 2011 - 17:34

    Here’s a link to my Guardian Careers blog post Feeling Lucky: How important is luck to career success?

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