Luck – some people have it!
A few days ago, Stumbleupon quite appropriately threw up an old Telegraph article on Richard Wiseman’s work on luck, or luckiness.
Quite briefly, Wiseman showed in an experiment that unlucky people have tunnel vision. They are so focused on what they want that they miss good stuff happening under their noses.
More interestingly, Wiseman ran a ‘luck school’ and helped luckier people get luckier and unlucky people become lucky.
The ‘luck school’ is hard to find
I’ve searched and searched but I cannot find the Wiseman’s exercises Nor has the work developed much traction under Google Scholar. It seems that Wiseman is breaking his first principle of luck – get out there.
Firewalls, copyright, hopes for a bob or two from a book sale, consigns interesting work to oblivion.
Failing in my search for what Wiseman actually did, I reverted to first principles – in plain language, worked it out for myself. Reinvented the wheel!
Luck & positive psychology
Since Wiseman did his work, positive psychology, positive organizational scholarship and the mytho-poetic tradition in management have burst into bloom. So I’ll start there. Does Wiseman’s work add to what we know about having a good life?
#1 Wiseman talks about self-fulfilling prophecies, which are devastatingly powerful ,as we know from Pygmalion and My Fair Lady. When you are treated like a lady, you act like a lady. We are immensely influenced by 0ther people’s expectations of us. And we are also influenced by our expectations, when we believe them.
Simply put, it’s a good idea to work on our story and to write down the best one that we can believe in. And then write it again, and again. As we live out the best one that we believe in, we’ll create opportunities that allow us to imagine another, and then another!
#2 Psychologists are wizards at ‘reframing’. That’s what most psychologists do for you when you have a bad case of the blues. You can teach yourself to reframe too. That’s what a gratitude diary does. I stumbled over a permutation of the conventional gratitude by playing with the Montreal app Inpowr.
This is what you do. Jot down what happened in your ghastly day and ask what went wrong – just as you normally do. Remonstrate with yourself – why did I . . . etc. etc. etc. When you are done beating yourself up, ask yourself what you will do better next time. Great. That’s where most coaches take you.
Now fly! Ask yourself this: why did I do so well? You are not saying you did well, but why did you do well? And then you notice the positive mechanisms that were jumbled up in the mess. You’ll feel better immediately andsee your ‘pushing off’ points in a flash. A good night’s sleep, and you approach the next day positively.
#3 Psychologists, and even more so positive organizational scholars and mytho-poetic practitioners, also encourage us to think through our story. What brought us to this place? What is the road we are travelling? What is our journey? We are often in tizz because we feel rejected. Bad events challenge our sense of self-worth. When we recall our journey and see the hazards as part of that journey, then we put them in perspective. Yes, the situation is bad. The situation is bad. We are not. If we have done bad things, we can make amends. But we should never, ever confuse the bad situation with ourselves. We should also watch out for people who try to confuse us with the situation. People who are insecure in themselves think because we are confronting bad situations that we are unlucky and edge away from us. Reassure them. Then, see if they come to help. If they don’t, fine. Every journey includes people who help and people who obtruct!
In short, we chose the story we live. Something brought us to this place. We must own our story that led us to encounter the bad stuff, but not the bad stuff itself. That’s just bad.
#4 And then get out there! We can’t win the lottery if we aren’t in it. If we meet the same people every week, we cannot meet anyone new. The trick in life is to add a little variety and chance to our daily comings-and-goings. We can take a different route home. Or, sit in a different carriage. Or, travel at a different time. We can talk to people in a queue or to our neighbours on the street. We can take a walk at lunchtime or do something uncharacteristic – go to a museum, buy lunch for a homeless person. Mix it up, a little.
This too is a feature of the positive approach to psychology in this way. Just as we are not bad because the situation is bad, we are not good in and of ourselves either. We are our interactions with the world. Our life is situated in those interactions. If our relationship with the world has got stale and boring, then we can give it a quick fluff up as we might a cushion. Now remember, don’t give the world a fluff up, and don’t give yourself a fluff up – give your interactions with the world a fluff up!. That is why makeovers are so cheap and easy to do. A smile rather than a frown. A different route to work. A quick polish of the glass after you washed it. Little acknowledgements that the world is there.
Poet David Whyte says: when our eyes are tired, no part of the world can find us. Relax your eyes and let them wander. You will be amazed at who & what says hello.
Luck is more than positive psychology
What does seem to be different about the work on luck is its attention to variation.
So much of western psychology tries to remove variation from life. We are expected to walk in lock-step like soldiers on parade. We are taught that mistakes are bad. We demand punctuality (yet we have inefficient transport and we lose data on trains).
Everyone who has studied stats knows that we look at two numbers : the average (or mid-point) and the spread.
If we just attend to the average, we would be like an army that buys the average size boots and asks every soldier to wear them whether they are much too big or much too small.
There is an old joke too that armies line up the recruits on the first day and send away the tallest and the shortest – because they didn’t buy uniforms in those sizes.
When an army does that they have recognised that they have variation – but they are still trying to make variation go away.
There is an alternative. To ask how variety will work for us. That is what we can learn from the work on luck.
Our personal goals and stories should embrace the richness of the world, and the variety out there. Our personal goals and stories should embrace what we don’t know and the way other people can surprise us.
A colleague of mine, a British/Norwegian psychologist, trained executives to listen to presentations and to hold back their reactions until they had asked these questions:
- What surprised me about what you just said?
- What would I like to know more about?
Once they’d explored disconcerting events or requests, then they could make decision.