Over the past many years, I have asked more than a thousand men and women this question: What do lucky people do that unlucky people don’t do?
Their answers have led me to conclude that five major characteristics distinguish the lucky from the unlucky. Furthermore, I am convinced that most people can improve their luck simply by incorporating these characteristics into their daily life. Here’s what you can do:
1. Form Many Friendships. In general, the luckiest people are those who have many friends and acquaintances. O. William Batalla, and executive “headhunter” who brings luck to people in the form of lucrative job offers, has analyzed the chains of circumstance that led him to winning job candidates. The majority of such chains turned out to be those of acquaintanceship.
“Lucky people,” says Batalla, “are gregarious. They go out of their way to be friendly. They talk to strangers. They’re joiners, meeters, greeters. If they sit next to somebody on an airplane, they start a conversation. The man who sells them their morning newspaper is more than just a face. They know his name and how many kids he has and where he went on his vacation.”
Dr. Stephen Barrett, a Pennsylvania psychiatrist, finds that not only do lucky people have the knack of initiating friendly contacts but they also have a certain magnetism that makes them the targets of ‘others’ friendly approaches. Barrett calls this a “communication field.” He believes that facial expressions, body positions, voice tones, choice of words, ways of using the eyes form a communication field clearly visible to other people.
“We usually know instinctively whether somebody likes us or not,” he says. “We can meet a total stranger and know in seconds if he or she wants to spend more time with us. Lucky people communicate inviting and comfortable signals.”
The bigger your web of friendly contacts, the better your odds of finding some pot-of-gold opportunity. Actor Kirk Douglas, for one example, got his first big break through an earlier contact with a then-unknown actress, Lauren Bacall. She was only one of many people whom the gregarious young Douglas had befriended. But by befriending many, he increased the chances that a helpful Bacall would turn up.
2. Honor Your Hunches. A hunch is a conclusion based on facts that your mind has accurately observed, stored and processed. But they are facts that you don’t consciously know because they are stored on some unconscious level of awareness.
Hotel man Conrad Hilton owed his monumental success partly to a finely tuned hunching skill. Once he was trying to buy an old hotel in Chicago whose owner was selling to the highest bidder. All the sealed bids were to be opened on a certain date, and several days before the deadline Hilton submitted a $165,000 bid. He went to bed that night feeling vaguely disturbed and woke with a strong hunch that his bid was not going to win. “It just didn’t feel right,” he said later. Acting on this strange intuition, he submitted another bid: $180,000. It was the highest bid. The next one down was $179,800.
Hilton’s hunch could have welled up from stores of facts in the recesses of his mind. Ever since he bought his first hotel as a young man in Texas, he had been gathering knowledge about the business. Moreover, in bidding on that Chicago hotel, he undoubtedly knew much about the likely competing bidders–knew it without being able specifically to articulate it. When his conscious brain assembled known data and produced a bid, his subconscious was rummaging in a huge dark warehouse of other facts and concluded that the bid was too low. He trusted the hunch, and it was magnificently right.
How do you know whether to trust a hunch? Says one successful huncher, a retired stockbroker, “I ask myself: Is it conceivable that I’ve gathered data on this situation without realizing it? Have I found out all I can about it, done all the work I can? If the answers are yes and if the hunch feels strong, I tend to go with it.”
Two warnings: One, never trust hunches about such things as lotteries and slot machines. There is no possibility that such a hunch can well up from some hidden pool of facts inside you, because there ‘are’ no facts. And two, never confuse a hunch with a hope. A lot of bad hunches are just strong wishes in disguise.
3. Be Bold. Lucky people tend to be bold, and the most timid, with exceptions, the least lucky. Luck probably creates boldness, but boldness also helps create good luck. To act boldly, follow these rules:
- Be ready to zigzag, to jump off in a new direction, when a good opportunity comes your way.
- Know the difference between boldness and rashness. If you bet your life savings on a spectacular venture in which you stand to lose everything that is rash. If you accept an exciting new job opportunity even though you are scared by the thought of stepping into the unknown, that is bold.
J Paul Getty, the oil billionaire and a supremely lucky man, zigzagged in his early years. He went to college thinking he wanted to be a writer. Then he decided he wanted to enter diplomatic service. Out of college, however, he found himself attracted by the Oklahoma oil boom, in which his father was then enriching himself. The oil business was off Getty’s main route, but he felt compelled to postpone his diplomatic career for a year and try his hand as an oil wildcatter.
Young Getty was bold, not rash. He never entered a venture whose cash requirements, in the event of a loss, were big enough to cause him serious hardship. His first few ventures were flops. But in 1916 he hit his first major producing well. It founded his fortune–when he was but 23!
Lucky? Of course. But Getty deserves to be lucky. He had done everything right. How did Getty know the well would produce? He didn’t, although he had gathered all the facts he could. “There is always an element of chance,” he said, “and you must be willing to live with that element. If you insist on certainty, you will paralyze yourself.”
4. Limit Your Losses. Lucky people discard bad luck before it becomes worse luck. This sounds like a simple trick, but many people–the essentially unlucky–never seem to master it. There is almost always a time at the start of any souring venture when you can get out with a minor loss or none. But that time may pass very quickly. After it has gone, the glue of circumstance rapidly hardens around your feet. You are stuck, perhaps for life.
Bill Battalla tells a story of avoidable bad luck. A young chemist left a small mining company to take a higher-paying job with a large organization near New York City. HIs wife thought he was making a mistake and would be miserable in an urban environment. His old boss also doubted that the young man would adapt well to life in a big company. “When you want to come back,” he said, “just let me know.”
Within a few months of moving, the chemist knew his wife and former boss were right. He didn’t like life in the metropolis. Moreover, his job and prospects were both quite different from what he had signed for. This would have been the time to cut his losses, but the chemist kept hoping the bad beginning would evolve into a happy ending. By the time he finally determined that his problems weren’t temporary, he was stuck.
It’s hard to say, “I was wrong.” Hard to abandon an investment of money, love, time, effort or commitment. Yet, as the late Gerald M Loeb, one of the brightest and luckiest stock- market speculators in recent times, put it, “Knowing when to sell out and having the guts to do it is an essential technique of successful living.”
A Swiss banker and self-made millionaire summed it up this way: “If you are losing a tug-of-war with a tiger, give him the rope before he gets to your arm. You can always buy a new rope.”
5. Prepare for Problems. Most lucky people nurture pessimism, guarding it against assaults, exercising it daily to keep it lean and hard. Said J Paul Getty, “When I go into any business deal, my chief thoughts are on how I’m going to save myself if things go wrong.”
The uses of pessimism among the lucky can be articulated in terms of Murphy’s Law: “If something can go wrong, it will.” Never, never assume that you are fortune’s darling. Never drop your guard.
A study of accidents among bus drivers in South Africa concluded that among “bad-risk” drivers–those involved in more than a normal share of accidents–an outstanding personality trait turned out to be over-optimism. The bad-risk driver had too much faith in his own skills, in other drivers’ good sense and ability, and in luck.
Lucky men and women, notably more than the unlucky, are aware that no life is ever totally under the control of its owner. If you cling to an illusion of control, you won’t build defenses against bad luck and, when bad luck does strike, you will be too demoralized to react in useful ways.
People who are lucky are by definition those whom fortune has favored–but one reason they are favored is that they never assume they will be. They know fortune is fickle.