Almost 25% of company founders and business-builders believe that luck is a major factor in their success. What’s most surprising is that people generate their own luck. But lucky charms, amulets or knocking on wood won’t do it.
Richard Wiseman, the British psychologist, has studied luck from a scientific perspective, learning that it is not strictly random. Wiseman finds that lucky people tend to be more skilled at creating and noticing chance opportunities, they listen (pay attention) to their intuitive ideas, use positive expectations and work hard to make lemonade out of lemons. They take a resilient attitude toward life. If you know your psych, you recognize that there are a lot of spin-offs from empirical research built into his “luck factor theory,” beginning with the extensive research on the personal impact of positive attitudes.
In addition, Wiseman finds that unlucky people are generally much more tense and anxious than lucky people, and research has shown that anxiety disrupts people’s ability to notice. On top of that, those same unlucky people shy away from the very change and variety that would add to the potential for good fortune.
In sum, Wiseman concludes that the differences between the lucky and unlucky people are striking. Lucky people tend to imagine spontaneously how the bad luck they encounter could have been worse and, in doing so, they feel much better about themselves and their lives. This, in turn, helps keep their expectations about the future high, and, increases the likelihood of them continuing to live a lucky life.
The new role of
Luck—or even better, serendipity--that aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident, assumes a far more important role in this new economy. In the fascinating new book, The Power of Pull, by John Hagel III, John Seely Brown, and Lang Davison, the authors emphasize the role and importance of serendipity. They define it as the ability to find people and the knowledge they carry with them. In today’s world, where you don’t even know what you’re looking for, finding and attracting knowledge people is key.
Why is this so important? As Pull puts it, when we dive below the surface of events that get so much attention—from both journalists and bloggers—we find that our foundations are constantly shifting. For most of us there is an enormous distance between where we are today and where we’ll need to be in order to fully take advantage of changing opportunities. Not only do we have to keep our eye on the ball—that long-term directional focus—but we all have to amplify our own efforts with the resources of others.
Think about it: if you’re exploring new sets of problems, new territories—what Hagel and buddies call an “edge,” it’s always very, very helpful to learn from the experiences of others. Luck, what I like to think of as “serendipitous encounters,” is not only the best way to gain insight and resolutions, but often the only way to gain those insights. Indeed, as I reflect on those “lucky encounters,” I celebrate my good fortune in the richness, insight and even the blessing they’ve brought to my life and profession.
Creating your own
In “Pull” the authors argue strongly and wisely for the “shaping” of serendipity rather than treating it as merely a matter of chance. They talk about our all-too-common experiences of needing to know, but not needing to know what you need, and what really exists, much less how to find it or whom. MIT’s Sherry Turkle adds that as a result of internet search engines, fewer and fewer of us really know how to engage in search outside of Googling the internet and using its other search engines. Because the internet completely manages search processes for us, knowledge of those processes has gone the way of the Dodo bird, profoundly limiting resources beyond the internet. Indeed, there seems to be little understanding, for example, that ideational and personal search tends to flow in significantly evolutionary and haphazard formats and that those processes can be manipulated for both ideas and people. Those who grew up, trained in library skills, would understand the processes. But what Hagel and colleagues do for us is a huge updating and revision of the 20th century environments, knowledge and skills for the 21st century.
Pull suggests five environments for enhancing serendipity.
- Geographic spikes—more people live in large urban centers than in any other part of the globe. Different cities offer a wealth of options, providing gathering places for increasing the probability of serendipitous encounters. Most of us think automatically of Silicon Valley for software or Los Angeles for producers and directors. One of my friends is interested in the future applications of technology to food resources and has located in the Twin Cities precisely because of UMN and the many food industries and resources in that area.
- Conferences—These “moving circuses” are especially useful because participants have self-filtered. They provide opportunities for meeting people with information, making possible likely serendipity.
- Online social networks—Virtual environments provide plenty of potential for shaping serendipity. Admittedly, as these environments grow there is potential for low-productivity encounters. Still, choosing the social platforms of interest can provide insight into which initial contacts to pursue.
- Connection platforms—these platforms help people connect around needs. Open-source software sites such as SAP’s Developer Network are one kind. But eBay and Amazon provide another kind of network. For example, I’ve picked up a couple exceptional contacts simply by reading Amazon’s reviews on a niche book.
- Institutions—Many institutions develop conference strategies, providing options for contacts with people of similar interests. Universities, major industries and large corporations, as well as national conference planners all fit into this category.
Serendipity (luck) comes to those who. . . . know where and how to shape it. As the authors put it, to get better faster at whatever it is you do, you’ve got to be supported by a broad array of complementary people and resources from which you can pull what you need to raise your rate of performance improvement. And what are the competencies you’ll need to achieve that? Well, that’s for another blog.
Hagel, John III, John Seely Brown and Lang Davison, The
Power of Pull: How small moves, smartly made can set big things in motion. (New
York: Basic Books), 2010.
See especially: John Hagel's blog, The Edge
Turkle, Sherry, Alone Together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other. (New York: Basic Books), 2011.
Wiseman, Richard, The Luck Factor. The skeptical inquirer, May/June 2003.
Flickr photo: tim geers