Luck Is More Than Just A Four-Letter Word

Recently, a friend quipped: “Luck is a four-letter word.” I started thinking about writing about luck and chance.  About randomness. About what we control and what we don’t.

What’s Your Belief About Luck?

First, I’d like you to think for a moment about what your attitude is toward luck.  What do you believe about luck.  What do you think luck is?  Or do you even think there is any such thing as luck?  Perhaps you hold with those who say you make your own luck.  Maybe you have a few superstitions about luck.  But one thing is fairly probable — you’ve thought about luck and you have opinions on it.

Attitudes about luck have a wide range, as is proven by the various sayings we have about it.  They seem to vary from “Curse the luck!” to “Bless my lucky stars!”

How about these expressions: “Just lucky, I guess”…”Good luck and God bless”…”Having any luck with that?”…”Of all the luck!”…”Just my luck”…”As luck would have it”…”Luck smiled on me.”

Although I’ve heard it many times before, I particularly was struck by the poignancy of hearing the expression “You can’t beat luck” in an episode of the short-lived TV-show “Dr. Vegas.”

The gambling-addicted physician was doing a masterful job of winning game after game in a poker tournament.   At the end, the odds were so stacked in his favor that even his opponent believed it was impossible to beat him.  It came down to the turn of one card.  And in a millions-to-one shot, the one card that could beat him turned up in his opponent’s hand.  They were both astonished. And that’s when she said, “You can’t beat luck.” (She may have said “just plain luck.”  I don’t remember the exact words, and I’m not going to try to find that episode online and watch it again just to be accurate.)

Defining Luck

I agree that you can’t beat “luck” — if you are defining luck as random chance, an event completely out of your control and almost impossible to predict.  However, some who write about luck and chance from the scientist’s point of view will tell you that you need to use your words more strictly if you want to understand luck and how to control it.  You need to realize that there’s a difference between luck and chance.

Chance is random occurrences.  Luck is “being in the right place at the right time for useful probable occurrences.”  Luck is also “making the most of chance occurrences by being alert to them and their possibilities.

If you are careful about your definition of luck, you’ll appreciate the literature that explains how you control it and how you make your own luck.  You’ll also react better to harmful and disappointing chance events, accepting that they are out of your control.  But your reaction to those chance events is in your control and you can use that control to recover.  You can even use your control to transform unfortunate chance events into opportunities for growth and profit.

Learning To Control Luck And Make Your Own Luck

In my research, I came across an excellent article by Daniel Pink, on the FastCompany website, “How To Make Your Own Luck.”   If you want an outstanding and brief outline of how to change and control your luck, this is the article to read.

In this 2003 article, Pink interviews Richard Wiseman about the ideas in Wiseman’s book “The Luck Factor: Changing Your Luck, Changing Your Life: The Four Essential Principles.”  It’s a good, long interview and the four essential principles are revealed.

So much of the article, as well as the name of the book, sounded familiar.  I researched further and found that there was an earlier book called “The Luck Factor” by Max Gunter.  I was sure I had read the book and a search of my bookshelves turned it up.  Re-reading it, I discovered that both books seemed to have many of the same ideas.  Different stories.  Different approaches to studying the ideas.  But pretty similar conclusion and advice.

The Wiseman book is difficult to get in the U.S.  I had to order a used copy and wait about a week.  But Pink’s article intrigued me, so I wanted to know more.  Especially since the writer is a fellow psychologist.  The article tells the basics you need to know, but the book is good reading if you want to go to the trouble of trying to get a copy.

Gunther’s book The Luck Factor: Why Some People Are Luckier Than Others and How You Can Become One of Them is easily available here in new and used editions as well as on Kindle.

I’ll be back in a later article with more on luck and chance.  Meanwhile, take a look at Pink’s article.  (And, by the way, you may have noticed that this article was the result of luck.  A friend made an observation by chance that I recognized as a good topic for an article, and luckily, I had already read and kept a good book on it.  So, my research was made easier.  Funny how that works out.)

You can learn what you want — faster, more easily and fearlessly

I recently came across a TED talk given by Tim Ferriss called “Smash Fear, Learn Anything.”  Ferriss — known widely for his productivity secrets in “The 4-Hour Workweek” — speaks about working with smarter techniques to learn skills faster and more easily.  And doing so even in the face of anxiety and low-confidence — or fear and phobia.

His talk does double duty. He shows the importance of facing the hard stuff in life head-on, resolving your anxieties and working your way through to solutions. In addition, he actually teaches some effective techniques in learning to be a good swimmer, speak a new language and dance the Tango (or any other kind of dance.)

While I applaud a great deal of what Ferriss writes in his books, I also take issue with an equal amount of his ideas.  This 16-minute talk, however, is full of insights and tips that fall on the applause side.

(Besides, even when Ferriss writes stuff I disagree with or find ultimately inappropriate, I still find him interesting.)

So, here’s the video:

New on the job: Three Rules of Working.

It’s the middle of June.  Most graduation ceremonies are done and the grads are looking for jobs.  Some are high school grads, some are college or tech school grads.  It doesn’t matter which you are.  The “new job” experience is pretty much the same.  Exciting and difficult.  And these days, it’s exciting and difficult just to get a job in the first place.

Being new on a job is hard in many ways.  But the worst part is that you don’t know the people, the “rules,” the purpose of much of the work or the real expectations of your own work (which are all too often different from what you are told when you’re hired.)  You feel like you’ve just been dumped into a pool of cold, dark water and you don’t know how to swim.

The “new job” experience reminds me of an amusement some of my family (of origin) members enjoyed at my expense.  They asked me to sit down with their precocious child and play a video game.  I never play video games.  Computer games, yes.  Particularly adventure games and first-person shooters.  But this was a child’s game.  No one even told me what the name of the game was.  I didn’t know how it was played, what I could do, how the controls worked, what was the purpose, or how to perform any of the activities.  So, my loving family stood around and laughed at my inability to perform up to the level of a 5-year-old.  Luckily for them, the weapons I had my hands on were only virtual ones.

New jobs, even in the same company where you’ve worked for years, are unexplored territory.  There are new rules, new purposes, new expectations and new cultures at every level and in every section or department of an organization.  So, whether you’re new to the organization or just new to the job, you’ve got learning to do.  Or maybe some relearning to do.

To help you out, I’ve compiled some general rules that seem to apply to every job, profession and business:

1. Rule number one is always this: Your job is what your boss tells you it is.  Do what he tells you to do unless it’s harmful or unlawful. It doesn’t matter what your job description says.  It doesn’t matter what you were promised when you were interviewed.  It doesn’t matter what you’ve been trained to do.  It doesn’t matter what the last person in your job did. It doesn’t matter if it’s fair.  It doesn’t matter if it’s legal to require it of employees. Let me repeat: Your job is what your boss tells you it is.

Why does it work that way?  Because the boss controls whether or not you keep your job, whether or not you get the good assignments, whether or not you get a raise, whether or not you get a promotion (or demotion), and whether or not you get a good recommendation when you leave.  He controls who you can talk to above him in rank — just try jumping over his head and find out how fast you get fired.  He hears about it if you complain to others behind his back.  He does your performance appraisals and he can lie about you no matter how good you are.  Or he can rave about your wonderful abilities. Whatever he puts on your record can follow you throughout your entire career.

If your boss likes you, he might mentor you.  He might help you rise in the company.  He might make your work life heavenly.  If he doesn’t like you, he can make your work life hell.

Do what your boss says and be nice to him.  As far as the organization goes, his powers are god-like.  The organization always backs the boss.  Even if he’s wrong.

And remember what I said upfront about doing what he says unless it’s harmful or unlawful?  Even if it is harmful or unlawful, you may be fired if you don’t do it.  Don’t do it anyway.  You don’t want to work for a boss like that.  You don’t need any particular job badly enough.

2. You need friends on the job. And it is highly likely you will find friends on the job.  Job-friends will help you discover the organizational rules, expectations and culture.  They will help you find other like-minded friends and colleagues.  They will help you learn to fit in to the organization, the department and the groups of employees that will help you survive and succeed.  They will help to protect you and help you protect yourself against your on-the-job enemies (and frenemies.)

Without a social support network on the job, your chances of survival and reasonable comfort level are very low.  If you are shy or even a bit reclusive, get over it.  I don’t care how you manage that.  Get psychotherapy if necessary.  A social network (both on the job and off) — albeit a small one — can make a huge difference.

However, for those of you who are not merely new to the job, but also new to the working world, here’s a word of caution.  Making friends on the job takes more care and discretion than in your normal social life.  You can’t afford to make friends with bad reputations: you will be judged by the organization with the same suspicions that they have for your friends.  You can’t afford to have friends who are difficult to get along with.  You have to see and work with those people every day and can’t have personal disagreements with them.  You can’t afford to make friends easily with the first people who reach out to you — often they are busybodies, gossips or jealous rivals who want to undermine you.  Be friendly and play nicely with everyone. Then, take time to choose on-the-job friends with greater deliberation.

3. Have a good satisfying life outside of work. Do you want to live long enough to retire?  Get a life.  Work/life balance is a popular concept these days.  I don’t know if it is possible to have real 50/50 balance, but even if it is, I encourage you to skew the balance toward life outside of work.

In fact, for a healthy life, both physically and psychologically, work should probably hold no more than a one-third section of your life.  Two-thirds or more of your life should be about yourself, your loved-ones and your interests.  My favorite quote is “Nobody on his deathbed ever said, ‘I wish I had spent more time at the office.'”*

We all have a limited amount of time.  If we follow the philosophers who encourage us to make the most of every day, that means we want to live the best we can in each twenty-four hours.  Since we have to spend eight of those hours sleeping, that means we need a great home/social life and a work life that is as minimized and fulfilling as possible.

How to achieve that is well beyond the scope of a single article.  For that matter, it’s beyond the scope of a single book.

Those are the condensed “rules” of working.  There are numerous others, but if you understand and practice those three, they’ll serve you well.  And you’ll end up with enough time to learn and practice your own set of rules.

Working can be an unhappy drudge or a satisfying, fulfilling experience.  An amazing amount of how it turns out is in your power.  Think about these “rules” and see what you come up with to make your work and your life go your way.

*(The original quote said “more time on my business,” but I like the subsequent revision better.)