My friend Jess owns an eyebrow salon. You take your eyebrows there and you come out svelte, groomed and attractive. While Jess was shaping and grooming my brows the other day, she told me how incredibly lucky she is. She has a great and growing business, staff she adores (and who adore her), two terrific kids, and a beautiful home. And she was surprised when I told her none of this is luck.
Jess has worked hard to get this ‘lucky’: she worked out of a shed in her garden when her babies were tiny; she took business risks and leapt forward wherever she could; her staff members are great because she both picks them well and treats them well. Are these things luck? Or are they the results of measured risk, hard work, and a good portion of ‘balls’.
Professor Richard Wiseman studied luck and how you find it. In 2003, I bought his brilliant book, The Luck Factor, for the ‘Women Returners’ I was teaching in Staffordshire. Some of them said they found it difficult to do their homework or get to college because they were single parents. I was a single parent who’d recently finished a first and second degree, so I didn’t have an awful lot of truck with that as an argument. The real reason those particular women couldn’t get it done was that they didn’t believe that they could (I hope a year at college proved to them that, in actual fact, they could do pretty much most things they put their minds to). Of course there are barriers: logistics; health; childcare; money (especially with student fees at an all-time high) - but the optimistic mind is far better prepared to scale these obstacles.
In an article for the Skeptical Enquirer in 2003, Wiseman wrote that ‘lucky people generate their own good fortune via four basic principles. They are skilled at creating and noticing chance opportunities, make lucky decisions by listening to their intuition, create self-fulfilling prophesies via positive expectations, and adopt a resilient attitude that transforms bad luck into good.’ They also, he found, have optimistic memories. Lucky people remember fewer failures – and therefore take more risks. The more risks you take, the greater your chances of one paying off. Unlucky people remember the failures and are more guarded in future choices.
I’ll be talking about making your own luck on the Path to Publishing at the Kent Festival of Writing on April 14th. Writers have to do the necessary work to get lucky. We have to put in hours of making, ligging, creating, reshaping. We have to follow instructions, keep to deadlines, and respond to criticism in a positive and useful way. Much like any other job you want to do well really...
When I first started getting feedback from agents and editors, I used to rail against their comments – furious that they thought I had one character too many or my plot was implausible. The most important thing I learnt on my writing journey was to listen, to make the changes that people with more experience and a better eye suggested. And now, funnily enough, the more I take their advice on board, and the harder I work, and the more risks I take – the better I get at being lucky.
The best story from Wiseman’s research is this: I gave both lucky and unlucky people a newspaper, and asked them to look through it and tell me how many photographs were inside. On average, the unlucky people took about two minutes to count the photographs whereas the lucky people took just seconds. Why? Because the second page of the newspaper contained the message “Stop counting – There are 43 photographs in this newspaper.” This message took up half of the page and was written in type that was over two inches high. It was staring everyone straight in the face, but the unlucky people tended to miss it and the lucky people tended to spot it.
And then it gets better: Just for fun, I placed a second large message half way through the newspaper. This one announced: “Stop counting, tell the experimenter you have seen this and win $250.” Again, the unlucky people missed the opportunity because they were still too busy looking for photographs.