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“Luck” Means Something Different Than I Thought it Did!


John Bates on a beautiful longboard
John Bates surfing Malibu… Go With the Flow


For most of my life I thought that luck was something that just happened. Something that was out of my control. Something that no one could control, or even really influence. And, perhaps when you’re talking about things that involve pure chance, maybe that’s still true.

But, besides the initial starting conditions of being born and where and when we are born, etc. the majority of our lives, I believe, is not pure chance and luck is not something I see as being beyond our influence. Here’s what I mean.

A Brilliant Way to Study Luck

Richard Wiseman is someone I think is just brilliant. In 1993 he began placing ads to find people who thought they were either exceptionally lucky or unlucky. He ended up with a large database of self described lucky and unlucky people. He then began running experiments with them. In his article, The Luck Factor, he says:

“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. 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.”

So, the startling conclusion of more than 10 years of research into the nature of luck has “revealed that, to a large extent, people make their own good and bad fortune. The results also show that it is possible to enhance the amount of luck that people encounter in their lives.”

So What Can You Do?

Wiseman found that lucky people create their own good luck via four basic principles.

  1. Lucky people create and notice chance opportunities. There is a value to being focused and, it can go too far. In the example above people missed the large “lucky” messages in the magazine because they were overly focused on counting the pictures. Relax a little.
  2. Lucky people make “lucky” decisions by listening to their intuition – trust your gut! In my training for leadership communication intuition and trusting your gut is one of the absolute fundamentals. It’s important to understand both sides of this. One: other people have gut feelings. And, two, you also have gut feelings. And, those gut feelings come from the very old part of your brain. And, they are usually right, because that part of your brain has access to reality on a very deep level.
  3. Lucky people create self-fulfilling prophesies by bringing positive expectations vs focusing on what could go wrong. You get what you focus on most of the time. Acknowledge what could go wrong, of course, it would be naive not to do that. And then, be willing to go in with positive expectations and have them be fulfilled. It’s scientifically proven that things turn out the way we expect them to turn out, typically.
  4. And, lucky peoples’ mindset is one of resilience that transforms even moments of bad luck into good luck, in the long run. Sure, it’s not always going to go exactly how you want it to go. But, could that bump in the road that seems like a problem actually lead to an even better opportunity?

And What Not to Do…

On the other hand, unlucky people are, in general, much more tense and anxious! Now, I admit that if you’re a conscious being and you’re paying any attention at all then anxious is, at the very least, a totally logical way to be! And yet, it just doesn’t help! As a surfer I learned to “go with the flow,” often I learned that the hard way. It’s not something that takes no effort, as many who misunderstand the saying think…

There is no way that I, as a human being, can control the Ocean. In a battle between me and waves, they win every time. And, when I achieve a state of relaxed, yet highly present awareness I can “go with the flow” in a way that feels wildly magical and otherworldly to this day. It truly takes something to just “go with the flow,” and anxiety always shuts it down.

Go With the Flow and “Soft Eyes.”

Now, let’s bring this to public speaking, and leadership in general. I find that the more uptight someone is about speaking and how they’re perceived as a leader the worse, in general, things go for them. Let me be clear. Understanding what is at stake is highly functional and contributes by generating a healthy dose of anxiety which motivates people to put in the time and effort it takes to be excellent.

And, there is certainly a point where that anxiety becomes deeply counterproductive. In the martial arts there is a concept called “soft eyes.” To achieve soft eyes you cannot focus on any one thing. To achieve soft eyes you must both defocus your eyes and not pay attention to any one thing while at the same time paying intense attention to everything. This puts one in a state of being able to react with great speed to whatever happens.

So, how can you take your leadership and public speaking both extremely seriously and, at the same time, relax, have “soft eyes” and “go with the flow?” For me it brings up one of the major paradoxes I think about in life all the time. Everything, every little tiny detail, every moment, everything, everything, everything matters… and at the same time, nothing matters. So, give it your absolute best and then take a “chill pill” and relax as the wave takes you.

If you’d like to hear about my good luck in losing $80M you can watch this short keynote at Startup Fest here.

Read Wiseman’s full article here: Richard Wiseman of The Luck Factor

Comments (3)

I saw the title of this post and I had to read.

If there is one thing I absolutely love after getting into my self-development process is the fact that I can see more opportunities.
Sometimes I mess up, learn and I know with absolute certainty that there are more opportunities coming my way.

Here’s a little story:

I went out of town to wash cars.
After scrubbing wheel caps for hours my mind was focused on ‘what cars have dirty wheel caps?’.
I could only see dirty wheel caps.

What you focus on expands.
Essentially luck is an extreme focus on opportunity.

-Gabriel B.

John, you’re doing such great work. Thank you for all your contribution to making the world a better place. A clichéd line, unfortunately, but I really mean it.

Your comment above regarding the connection between luck and intuition is bang on. I only learned the power of this connection myself just recently, and now I’m a true believer. Thanks for making the point explicit.

Funny, when I first heard about the ‘go-with-the-flow’ idea a number of years ago, I assumed there was some element of ‘laziness’ involved.. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Going with the flow has absolutely nothing to do with ‘giving up’, except in the context of letting go of anxiety and stress, as you so aptly point out. I have learned that my hard work goes a whole lot further when I stop swimming against my own tide, as it were, and learn to embrace what is working and is making sense, as opposed to forcing things through that just plain aren’t working.

I love your ‘soft eyes’ idea – it speaks to me on different levels – and I’m going to try to remember to keep this approach in mind, as a general approach to life.

You know, no matter what walk of life we are on, or line of work we choose, we all travel parallel paths… and the older I become, the more aware of this I become. The ways in which we can live our best selves are very similar across many walks of life, and if we can learn the language of analogy, we can each learn from others’ lessons more easily.

Thanks for sharing such a clear and useful message, John.

Cheers ~ Cathy (Cabasa) P.
(from your NS group 2016)

Great blog John. I find that the time for tension is when I practice for a speaking engagement, but once I actually get there it’s time to relax, and flow like a river. I enjoyed reading your thoughts and your reminder to have ‘soft eyes’ is especially helpful

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