Taking the Voodoo out of Luck

Ancient-y books

We all know people who are just lucky.

They walk out of stores with free goodies and leave most of us scratching our heads.  Modern-day Spidermen, we resign to believe that these lucky chosen few must have been bitten by a mystical luck bug – and secretly wish we had “it”.  Whatever it is that makes these people so damn lucky.

“Charm and good looks” they say.   “It must be.  They just have it.”

Riddle me this:  If we demand scientific explanations for most phenomena, happily smiting blind leaps of faith with the sacred sword of the scientific method, when did “voodoo magic” suddenly become an ok answer to an everyday phenomena like luck?

Religion, love it or not, requires a leap of faith.  Jesus, Allah, and the flying Spaghetti Monster all require their followers to believe in the extra-worldly.  That’s the nature of the beast, and in essence, we’ve turned luck into a similar religious leap of faith.  The chosen ones must be blessed by the voodoo-Gods of good fortune.  Rub their heads and all your wishes come true.

Bullshit. Serendipity isn’t voodoo, it’s created.

Confession: I’m one of those people.  The free-ticket-getting, meeter-of-people-much-more-awesome-than-I voodoo child that you either hate or love.  Friends rub my head as if I’m a genie, asking, “Please let there be standby seats on this flight, oh Blonde one.  Make all my wishes come true.”  No joke.

As much fun as it would be to be the blue Robin Williams of Aladdin, I’m no shaman.  I just have a theory of how luck works that consistently makes brings serendipity my way – and it’s surprisingly simple.  Believe it or not, there is a science to luck.  By following the numbers, having a good attitude, and begin comfortable putting ourselves in new situations, we can turn it into a force for the good for everyone.

Just ask

For the past month, I’ve been on the hunt for a part-time job.  Nothing too crazy, just a way to keep my landlord at bay and pick up a few useful skills.  Determined to find something awesome, I began slipping my shameless plea for help into conversation without a clue what story would play out in the job description.  Anything was fair game – from teaching to working with kids, waiting tables, or helping in a startup.  Instead of asking the difficult question, “What do I actually want to do?” I opted to let serendipity go to work for me and create the mythical ‘perfect job’ that I hadn’t met yet.  The asking game began.

Ten shameless plugs later…

Serendipity found me.  I met with the community / marketing director of an entrepreneurial co-working space called HUB Raleigh to talk about connecting their entrepreneurs up with university students.  At the end of the conversation, I slipped in:

“Hey Liz, I have a shameless plug for you.  You see so many awesome companies that come through these doors and I’m looking for a part-time job next year.  Have you heard of anything lately that sounds like me?”

Given that Liz and I just met, she politely grilled me for 5 minutes, and despite my best cloak and dagger routine surely discovered the genuine lack of direction that characterized my job search.  Liz rattled off a few prospects before abruptly stopping.

“Would you like to come in for an interview here?”

The wheels started to churn in my head: Get plugged in with awesome local entrepreneurs?  I’d love to.  Help build the entrepreneurial ecosystem of Raleigh?  Sounds like a dream come true.  Work with a Social Entrepreneurship Study Abroad program and possibly travel for free to Panama, Costa Rica, and Prague?

It was as if Willy Wonka, in the form of my charming new friend Liz, just gave me the golden ticket I didn’t know existed. The job was perfect – and honestly way more badass and fitting of my skill set than any of the possibilities previously flying through my head.

Ten shameless plugs.

That’s what it took for serendipity to find me.  If it weren’t for Serendipity, I would still desperately be trying to convince myself that waiting tables every Friday night would be “an awesome chance to get grounded and meet the citizens of Raleigh”.  No disrespect to waiters out there – I’ve done what you do and love it.  It’s dignified, good work, but not nearly as cool as the lucky break I’d just hit.  Hell, I might not even get the job – some things are out of our control – but I’m one step closer to finding something badass that will be a chance to grow and make money next year.  Willy Wonka’s world is pretty tasty, but it doesn’t exist for those who don’t ask for it.

Luck is a numbers game.  Ask the world and it will deliver.

That is, if you patiently let the numbers do work.   Serendipity wants to find us, we simply have to give it a chance.  Even better, it’s not all about us.

People want an excuse to be nice.  Let them.

I love Christmas.  It’s the Las Vegas of the holidays, but with a twist.  Lights populate the visual landscape and accost passerby’s.   Both are dangerous in large doses and can lead to serious bodily harm: for Las Vegas it’s hangovers and for Christmas it’s overly ambitious family reunions.  Even better, Christmas and Vegas share an unique ability to make the absurd acceptable.  Where else can we rent midgets by the hour or buy nice things for everyone we care about without getting weird looks?  Christmas even comes with a deadline.  Santa’s elves know how I work best.

This year, I’m donning a Santa hat and asked 30 of my closest friends to send their favorite quote to Santa.  The creative juices have me etching these cherished words into wood.  Two things are needed to make this Christmas cheer possible:  lasers and wood.

The perk of going to an engineering university is that we have laser cutters lying around to play with.  First obstacle, check.  Good wood, on the other hand, is expensive as hell.  So I embark on a mission to Home Depot, debating how much I love everyone against the prospects of temporary poverty.  Anku’s definitely worth $20, but is Hunter?

In a stroke of audacious brilliance (‘audacious’ makes everything sound like the Dos Equis man could have done it), I realize that every Home Depot must have extra wood lying around.  The wood might be a little chipped or broke, but hell, that’s character, right?

So I set off to create a little luck.  I find the orange-wearing master of the wood aisle, Jim, and ask him what types of wood he would recommend for this endeavor.  After sharing a few ideas, I ask if they had anything lying around in the back that was headed to wood retirement where woodpeckers feast and rotting is trendy.  Ten minutes later, we load 6 beautiful sheets that would have cost at least $70 into my car.  Call it the Christmas discount.  Jim even cut them down to size for me.

That would never have happened if I didn’t give Jim the opportunity to do something nice.  That’s the beauty of asking.  If you ask, people might just deliver.  Even better, most people want to be nice – altruism activates the same neurological pathways in our brain that sex and chocolate call home (cool study for science geeks here and translated into English here).  Give people the opportunity to be altruistic and you both win.  I walked away with free wood and a good story.  Jim turned useless scrap wood destined for the landfill into Christmas cheer – and I can guarantee from the smile on his face that he felt damn good about it.

Luck’s not magic, we create itand it makes people feel good.    

But… But.. asking is scary!

Yes it is, at first.

Building a failure tolerance.

Failure to lucky people is like the boring part of a road trip.  No one talks about it, but everyone knows it exists.  We convince ourselves that the la la land of only good times is reality, when in actuality, it’s only a part of the story.

Home Depot is a perfect example.

In this story, I also asked the trim man, the customer service lady, and the 1st orange-wearing god of home improvement that I ran into about similar donations to ‘Kevin’s Christmas Service’.  They all declined.  In most epic endeavors, this part of the story exists, but is rarely told.  What would happen if I related the first 9 shameless plugs in my job hunt to you in exquisite, Dickens-esque detail?  You’d fall asleep or slap me.  It’s not the fun part.  But that’s how the magic works.

In baseball, a batting average of .300 is considered excellent. With this, you can easily make the cut, blowing away the $480,000 starting salary of those that occupy the bottom of the MLB totem pole.  For the very best of these world class athletes, more than two thirds of their swings are met with the familiar ‘whiff’ of failure.  It’s par for the course.

To be lucky, failure must be an option.

When creating luck, it’s a fact of life that some people aren’t in a position to help.  Others might not connect with whatever diabolical plan for world domination we have in the works (in this case, Christmas presents).  Others are stuck in a state of depravity that robs them of a desire to do anything nice for us.  That’s ok too.  Ask enough people, and the Jim’s and Liz’s will surprise you.

Lucky for us, asking is a win-win too.  Critics, please temporarily turn off your predisposition to believe in a zero-sum world only made up of winners and losers to hear me out.

When we ask the world for luck, there are two common responses that we’ll get:  YES or NO.

YES means we win.  That can be a new job, free supplies, or meeting an awesome person.

NO means that we’re right where we started.  No harm done except to our pride, but we do get something a little less tangible out of the exchange.  First, we’re one step closer to luck.  The Sensei’s of the sales profession have practically made this a virtue of the trade.  If it statistically takes 30 “NO’s” to meet someone who genuinely needs your widget or wants to help you out, talk to 60 people and you’ll get to YES.  Two times.

Even better, we just built our tolerance for the word “NO”.

Next time we hatch a brilliant idea and need a little luck to make it happen, asking just became a little easier.  Every “NO” trains us to stop fearing failure and start embracing it as a fact of life.  We win either way.

Put yourself out there!  Play the numbers and create a little Serendipity no matter what you’re looking for.  You’ll be surprised just how lucky you are – and how much fun it is for everyone around you.

Happy holidays,

Kevin

PS. If you’re feeling lucky, sign up to get a little bit of awesome in your inbox once a week below!  I started this for me, but people seem to be liking it – it’s cool to hear feedback!

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4 thoughts on “Taking the Voodoo out of Luck

  1. Thanks for a great start to the New Year, Kevin! So well articulated and broken down! It seems like being extroverted can leverage one’s ability to make asks, meet people, and capture serendipity. Makes me wonder how introverts capture luck.

    • Gracias! My first instinct is this: simply being open to luck and seeing it as something you can create is powerful for introverts or extroverts. The same concepts apply to sending an email in your pajamas from home to someone who could help you out. That scenario got my foot in the door for Unreasonable last summer.

      But I’m not an introvert, so I can’t really empathize with what’s ‘out of the comfort zone’. What do you think? I’d love to hear from someone who’s fighting the fight as an introvert every day.

  2. Hm, be open to luck and play the numbers game. Sounds like the answer! Although I certainly wouldn’t consider myself an introvert, Elise Xu’s comments at BOS ’12 Institute opened my eyes to the world of introverts. I strive to get comfortable with the uncomfortable, defying the idea of a ‘comfort zone,’ and making spontaneous interactions intentional. I suppose the question for introverts and extroverts alike is how to foster an ever expanding comfort zone. I guess that’s through being open to luck and comfortable with rejection. It’s that whole being comfortable with rejection thing that gets me…

    • You keep bringing up the idea of “being open”. Maybe that’s it? I don’t pretend that any of us have all the answers, but it’s nice to have a little ammo to personally experiment with. I feel luckier some days and as unlucky as a frog enlisted to play frogger on others. There has to be some correlation between the lucky days and what we do / think, you know?

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