4 Ways to Make Your Own Luck

by Shana Montesol Johnson

In some parts of the world, St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated on March 17 by wearing green clothing, drinking green beer, and dyeing the local river green. Although this particular holiday will pass pretty much unnoticed here in Manila, my thoughts at this time of year turn to the topic of luck, and the fascinating research on how you can make your own luck. Sounds like the ultimate DIY project to me!

British psychologist Richard Wiseman spent ten years studying luck. He conducted 50 surveys and experiments on a total of 400 people, ages 18 to 84, who rated themselves at the start of the research as either exceptionally lucky or unlucky.  Wiseman found that what we call “luck” is not the result of random chance, but stems from our own thoughts and behavior. He concluded that those who see themselves as lucky make their own luck in identifiable ways. One of these ways is by maximizing chance opportunities.

So how can we maximize chance opportunities? Here are four ways:

1. Ditch the Single-minded Focus: Be Relaxed and Open

In order to make the most of chance opportunities we must be relaxed and open enough to notice them. This is illustrated in a striking study in which Wiseman asked “lucky” and “unlucky” subjects to look through a newspaper and count the number of photographs it contained. A simple enough task that didn’t seem to have much to do with luck – except the “lucky” subjects completed the task in a few seconds, and the “unlucky” ones took, on average, a full two minutes. Here’s the twist: on the second page of the newspaper, there was a message in huge type (more than 2 inches high), taking up a full half-page saying, “STOP COUNTING – THERE ARE 43 PHOTOGRAPHS IN THIS NEWSPAPER.” The “unlucky” people didn’t notice it because they were too intent on the task at hand, looking for the photographs.

In another experiment, Wiseman arranged to meet two self-proclaimed “lucky” and “unlucky” people for separate interviews at a café, a venue which seemed neutral but was staged by Wiseman. He arranged for the place to be so packed with customers, there was only one free chair, next to a wealthy businessman. Wiseman also put a $5 bill on the front step of the coffee shop. The “unlucky” interviewee arrived, and because his thoughts were anxiously focused on the interview, he walked right past the $5 bill. He sat down at the café’s only free seat, next to the businessman, and did not speak a word to him, but simply waited nervously for the interview. When Wiseman arrived, he asked the interviewee, “So, how was your morning?” The reply was, “Oh, nothing special.  Same as usual…”

When the “lucky” subject arrived, he saw the $5 bill, picked it up, and pocketed it. After sitting down next to the businessman, he struck up a conversation and the two ended up exchanging business cards. When Wiseman arrived and asked him “So, how was your morning?” he responded, “I had a great morning! I found a five-spot on the step and met a promising new business acquaintance.  Lucky as usual!

2. Don’t Make Your Goals Too Specific

Unlucky people tend to focus rigidly on a specific outcome. They may go to a party with the intent of meeting their ideal partner, so they miss the chance to make professional contacts or good friends. Lucky people have a vision for what they want, but aren’t fixated on the details of exactly what it must look like.

3. Build and Maintain a Strong Network

Building and maintaining a strong, large, and diverse network of friends and professional contacts can also enhance your luck. Wiseman found that people who consider themselves lucky have much broader social networks than the unlucky. This boosts the chances that they’ll meet people who can help them find jobs, dates or mates, housing, and other new opportunities – which may seem like chance encounters, but are actually not random.

4. Mix It Up

Another way to boost your luck is to vary your routine. Take a new route to work, strike up a conversation at a party with someone whom you normally wouldn’t approach, read a magazine you’ve never picked up before. “New or even random experiences introduce the potential for new opportunities,” writes Wiseman.

There are many more ways to make your own luck, but these 4 are a great starting point. Do let me know if they resonate with you, and if you consider yourself lucky or unlucky, in the Comments below. Happy St. Patrick’s Day and best of luck!

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Note: This post was originally written in the early days of this blog, March 2011. I’ve shared it again so that new readers can enjoy it!
Photo by Rheana Royer
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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Tig Armstrong

Thanks Shana, I thought this was a wonderful piece. It’s a perfect antidote for those (of us) who feel they might never measure up to usual goal-orientated, five self-affirmations (“I will be President of the USA before my next birthday”) practices espoused by the ‘help yourself’ industry.


Shana Montesol Johnson

Thanks for your comment, Tig! I’m glad you found the piece helpful. While I’ll admit that I’ve read a fair number of self-help books (occupational hazard as a coach), like you, I am turned off by mindless self-affirmations (your example made me laugh!)

Best of (self-made) luck to you this St. Patrick’s Day!


Tig Armstrong

Thanks for your reply Shana. I’ve been thinking about this some more (while vacuuming) and I think one of the key reasons I liked the piece, and the thinking behind it, is that so often there is an expectation of an ‘orthodoxy’ we are expected to subscribe to, or follow. As a current (mature-aged) masters student in international development I think this is a real issue for many of us. In fact, the bigger question often becomes, “which orthodoxy should I choose?”. It’s not helpful, is it? Often the unorthodox, and those making their own luck, are the ones making the real contributions as well as being the most inspirational.

Happy St. Patricks to you too.


Shana Montesol Johnson

Tig, I love that you were thinking about this while vacuuming — isn’t it the mindless activities (like vacuuming, washing dishes, commuting) that allow us the time to mull over stuff and have new insights? It sounds like you are chafing at the expectations you perceive in grad school that you follow a certain orthodoxy. I would say, explore that instinct! What is it telling you? What would you choose to do instead that would feel more liberating, empowering, and aligned with the work you’d like to do in the world?


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