How to be Lucky


Interesting advice from renowned psychologist Richard Wiseman, via Erik Calonius and my friend Jonathan Fields (whose excellent blog you’ll want to check out). Lucky people are blessed not by good fortune per se, but by a sense of possibility:

Wiseman surveyed a number of people and, through a series of questionnaires and interviews, determined which of them considered themselves lucky—or unlucky. He then performed an intriguing experiment: He gave both the “lucky” and the “unlucky” people a newspaper and asked them to look through it and tell him how many photographs were inside. He found that on average the unlucky people took two minutes to count all the photographs, whereas the lucky ones determined the number in a few seconds.

How could the “lucky” people do this? Because they found a message on the second page that read, “Stop counting. There are 43 photographs in this newspaper.” So why didn’t the unlucky people see it? Because they were so intent on counting all the photographs that they missed the message. Wiseman noted,

“Unlucky people miss chance opportunities because they are too focused on looking for something else. They go to parties intent on finding their perfect partner, and so miss opportunities to make good friends. They look through the newspaper determined to find certain job advertisements and, as a result, miss other types of jobs. Lucky people are more relaxed and open, and therefore see what is there, rather than just what they are looking for.”

For more on the psychology of luck, please visit Professor Wiseman’s website, here.

Do you consider yourself lucky?



  1. Luna on 14.04.2011 at 08:11 (Reply)

    What a great insightful article. Personally I don’t believe in luck for the most part. I sometimes see many happy, successful individuals who don’t limit themselves by a lucky or unlucky label. When bad things happen they just push through it. With others who lament their lack of luck I find they are frequently people who emphasize little setbacks and dwell on small issues. Car problems, annoying co-workers, line ups at ATMs. They will launch into dramatic stories about how ‘cursed’ and ‘unlucky’ they are but when you listen closely the stuff that their curse is made of is just the petty annoyances of every day life that many of us let roll off our back. Sometimes their issues are poor judgement or lack of troubleshooting. A car will die on the highway from not being well taken care of but they will see it again as ‘bad luck’. We are not all born with the same amount of common sense or even internal drive and some people in their upbringing are not nurtured into developing those traits as a result they just do not have the ability to see that they are causing a lot of their own ‘unluckiness’. I am sure that getting a publisher to look at your book was not luck it was the result of hard work, a great deal of research and effort on your part. I am also sure it is not being published because you are lucky. Harry Potter is not successful because J.K. Rowling just hit the jack pot. She sent her book to numerous publishers and did not give up though I have heard so many people refer to her as ‘just plain lucky’.

  2. Erik Calonius on 14.04.2011 at 08:59 (Reply)

    Thanks for mentioning my post on JonathanFields, Susan.

    I’d be happy to write something for your site!
    best, Erik

  3. Rachel on 16.04.2011 at 06:37 (Reply)

    I think there has to be a middle ground between belief and non-belief in luck. There seems to be a widespread view that believing in luck makes a person lazy, and I can certainly imagine that happening, but at the same time I fear that too resolute a rejection of the concept of luck tends to make a person rigid and bitter. For example: I was born into circumstances that were relatively poor by the standards of most of the people around me then, and strikingly poor by the standards of most of the people around me now. I could blame myself for this, I suppose, or I could blame my parents. In fact, I tend to ascribe it to luck. That’s just what I happened to get. Another example: a young woman of my acquaintance died, while on vacation, in a freak accident. I could blame for her this (Why wasn’t she standing five feet to the left or five feet to the right? Why did she need to go on vacation at all?) or I could ascribe the accident to God’s will, essentially blaming God for what happened. I don’t. I see it as an instance of horrifyingly, crushingly bad luck. Without a certain willingness to accept that some things that happen in life are beyond our or others’ control, we risk embittering ourselves.

    I clicked on the link to Richard Wiseman’s page and was fascinated by the four-point list of how to be lucky. I am pretty good at listening to my intuition (point 2) and turning disappointments into opportunities (point 4) and I would definitely agree, from my own experience, that these help one become more “lucky.” Principle One-“Maximise chance opportunities”-is something that I struggle with. I have noticed, particularly in my career, that the best opportunities often come to me in unexpected ways, and my ability to enjoy good luck in my career depends on my being able to seize unexpected opportunities as they arise. This can be hard for introverts-we like to think things through thoroughly, and as a rule, we do not like surprises. But increasingly, I’m finding that being able to respond quickly and accept unexpected opportunities is a skill that one can work on and improve at. I think that for me, learning to make the most of chance opportunities probably represents the best hope of becoming more lucky.

  4. Luna on 16.04.2011 at 09:17 (Reply)

    I agree with a lot of what Rachel says. Her example of her friend on vacation is a classic example of a terribly unlucky situation. Which is why I said I don’t believe in luck ‘for the most part’. What role do you think reframing has in luck? I would be curious to know, there is an interesting discussion on it on the Happiness Project blog this week.

    1. Susan Cain on 16.04.2011 at 10:12 (Reply)

      I like Rachel’s middle ground idea very much. There are clearly some situations that are just plain out of control, and trying to imagine that we have control when we don’t is crazy-making. But then there are other situations, of the kind you mention Luna, where we have control either directly or through what we make of the situation (turning lemons into lemonade) or how we think about the situation (re-framing, as you say). In those cases, failing to assert actual or mental control is also crazy-making. The psychologist Dan McAdams, who focuses on narrative psychology, says that the stories we tell about our past lives are a key to happiness and productivity. For example, after a divorce: “I was never able to get back on my feet again,” vs. “That was the most painful thing I’ve ever been through, but in the long run I am happier and never would have met my current mate but for weathering that pain.” This doesn’t mean that people with difficult childhoods should sugar-coat their memories, but rather look them squarely in the face and figure out how to play the best game they can with the cards they were dealt.

      Here’s an interesting question: when I was a kid, whenever I faced a moderate setback (for example not getting into the college of my choice) my mother would always tell me, “Things have a way of working out for the best.” She wouldn’t have said that for something truly terrible, like a major health problem, but rather for things that appeared not to go my way at the time. I often think of her perspective. For example, I tell myself that I wouldn’t have met my two best friends if I had gotten into the college of my choice. If I’m honest about it, though, I still think I would have preferred my first choice college. So is my decision to focus on the friends I wouldn’t have made a form of self-delusion, or a choice to focus on the silver lining, or both?

  5. Luna on 16.04.2011 at 14:36 (Reply)

    I think it is making the best of a situation plain and simple. You just moved on from a disappointment and didn’t wallow. I suffer from chronic migraines. To keep them at bay I have to abstain from alcohol, some foods, I need to exercise religiously as well as keep a fairly strict bedtime schedule. As a result I am very healthy, fit and aways rested and because I am so rested most always in a good mood. I also have learned to deal with stress in a healthy way so a not to exacerbate a migraine. I rationalize that these migraines have forced me to live a healthier lifestyle. I also always say it could be way worse. For example I could have a disease that is terminal. Of course I would prefer not have this condition but I do. Kind of like you would have preferred to get into your first choice college but you didn’t. Water under the bridge so you made the absolute best of it. And quite frankly it seems you’ve done quite well. Was it unlucky genetics that made me inherit these migraines? I never even think of it that way I always just think of it as something I need to deal with and it could be way worse.

  6. mark on 17.04.2011 at 17:17 (Reply)

    Brilliant insight — thank you! We use this insight in our career counselling method of practice, and it works. We talk about ‘watching for clues’ which leads people to take inspired action in their careers and lives. It’s the openness to watching for clues, the profound receptiveness aligned with a positive mindset that makes great things happen. -Mark

  7. Guest Post: "What Lucky People Do Differently" | The Blog of Erik Calonius on 05.10.2011 at 19:44

    […] How to be Lucky says: Apr 13, 2011 at 9:25 pm […]

Leave a comment

Quiet: The Book

- Wall Street Journal

Bill Gates names "The Power of Introverts" one of his all-time favorite TED Talks.

Best Nonfiction Book of 2012

QUIET has been voted the best nonfiction book of 2012


1. There’s a word for “people who are in their heads too much”: thinkers.

2. Our culture rightly admires risk-takers, but we need our “heed-takers” more than ever.

3. Solitude is a catalyst for innovation.

Read More

Join the Quiet Revolution
Susan on Facebook