Whether you call it luck, chance, or serendipity, people ranging from Virgin founder Richard Branson to Outliers author Malcolm Gladwell talk about its value in business.

Some researchers have gone to a lot of time and effort to break luck down into numerous components and even write equations to help measure luck. But luck really boils down to one thing: Events we don’t create that influence our livesand critically, how we respond to them.

“It is not the brightest who succeed,” Gladwell writes. “Nor is success simply the sum of the decisions and efforts we make on our own behalf. It is, rather, a gift. Outliers are those who have been given opportunities—and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.”

Luck can come down to something as simple as when you were born. Some of the most successful computer entrepreneurs such as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were born around 1955—not because there was anything magical about that date, but they were among the first people to get access to computers long enough to become experts, Gladwell explains.

Not that being lucky isn’t without risk. “Those people and businesses that are generally considered fortunate or luckier than others are usually also the ones that are prepared to take the greatest risks and, by association, are also prepared to fall flat on their faces every so often,” writes Branson in his autobiography, The Virgin Way. “In stark contrast, the ‘play it safe for fear of failing’ brigade are the ones who just never seem to get as lucky as the risk-takers. Coincidence? I don’t think so.”

Researchers believes it’s possible to become luckier, according to—where else?—the Irish News. “The key ideas are to take opportunities, trust your intuition, be optimistic and be resilient,” English psychologist Professor Richard Wiseman, author of The Luck Factor: The Scientific Study of the Lucky Mind, tells writer Jenny Lee.

Lucky people consistently spot opportunities while, conversely, anxiety disrupts people’s ability to notice the unexpected, Lee explains. “Unlucky people tend to be creatures of routine, who talk to the same type of people, take the same routes to and from work and holiday in the same place every year,” she writes. “In contrast, many lucky people try to introduce variety into their lives and thus create chance opportunities.”

Research by Anthony Tjan, co-author of Heart, Smarts, Guts, and Luck, shows similar results. “People who self-describe themselves as lucky in their entrepreneurial profile with us tend to be luckier because they have the right attitude,” he writes in the Harvard Business Review. The three criteria he found are:

  1. Humility. “Having a lucky attitude begins with humility and open vulnerability towards your own limitations,” Tjan writes.
  2. Intellectual curiosity. “Ultimately they become luckier because they are more willing to meet new people, ask new questions, and go to new places.”
  3. Optimism. “It is a self-fulfilling prophecy: more luck tends to come to those who believe in possibility—to those who see the good in something before they see the bad.”

Writer Max Gunther offers even more ways to become lucky—ironically, 13, to be exact, in his 1986 classic.

The biggest factor in luck? Expectation, Wiseman’s research found. “Lucky people expect good things to happen, and when they do they embrace them,” writes Michael Shermer in Scientific American. “But even in the face of adversity, lucky people turn bad breaks into good fortune.”

Moreover, lucky people and companies tend to not really be more lucky, but do a better job exploiting the lucky breaks they get, writes Bruna Martinuzzi in Open Forum. Research by Jim Collins, author of Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck—Why Some Thrive Despite Them All, increased their “return on luck” through four factors, she writes:

  1. Fanatic discipline (staying focused on core values and process in good and bad times)
  2. Empirical creativity (innovating from a sound, empirical base)
  3. Productive paranoia (maintaining hyper-vigilance and being prepared for inevitable bad luck)
  4. Level 5”ambition (being ambitious for a purpose beyond themselves)

Collins’ book gives one example of a medical equipment manufacturer that set a goal of 20 percent growth every year—but that was an upper bound as well as a lower one, so it didn’t grow too fast and run the risk of overexpansion. Lucky? Or smart?

In fact, just believing you’re lucky can end up making you luckier, according to a poll by AXA Business Insurance. “Simply believing in luck can be a powerful factor in increasing personal confidence, optimism and business success,” the company writes. “While being lucky may well be a state of mind, anything that builds business confidence should be welcomed.”

The organization goes on to cite research from the University of Cologne Psychology Department that activating a superstition boosts confidence, which, in turn, improves performance.

So if you have a “lucky” tie, “lucky” socks, or whatever, go ahead and wear them confidently. If it’s the lucky socks this St. Patrick’s Day, though, just remember to launder those puppies once in a while.


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