How To Be Lucky

Abraham Wald is certainly a name you aren’t familiar with. He was a Jewish mathematician who escape Nazi Germany. Wald eventually got a job at the Center for Naval Analyses, where he became an unforgettable hero.

He didn’t fight on the front lines or jump on any grenades, instead he used math.


Abraham Wald – Source: Prof. Konrad Jacobs

Wald applied advanced statistical skills to analyze how to minimize bomber losses. Upon examining bombers that had returned from battle, his colleagues recommended adding extra armor to the areas that showed the most visible signs of gunfire. In their minds the damage demonstrated a vulnerable area that needed to be protected. Wald thought differently. He reasoned that the bombers which had been shot down were not available to be inspected for damage.  The damaged areas actually represented the areas which could take damage. Using his statistical skills, he convinced the brass to reinforce unscathed areas – with dramatic results. Bomber fatalities dropped rapidly and Wald was forever a hero.

Unfortunately, as fate would have it, Wald and his wife died in a plane crash ten years later.

Wald’s work would later become an example of thinking that could solve one of the most prominent and pervasive errors in thinking: the survivorship bias. Survivorship bias occurs when we concentrate on the things that “survived” to the total exclusion of those which did not.

Today I want to explore the idea of survivorship bias and offer a solution – being lucky.

Where do we get our ideas from?  Ideas are usually passed down to us from a long line of “successful” people. Those who have made it into the public spotlight to preach their philosophy, way of doing things, or ideas end up shaping expectations of what is possible. We look at successful businesses and ask, “How did you do it”. We are always ready for the next tidbit of wisdom in the form of a quote, story or self-help book. But there is a problem with this.

When we only focus on what “works” we become blind to what might be possible.

We are conditioned to judge what is possible by looking at what other people have done. This is a product of calculating risk management. If someone has done it before, then maybe I can do it as well. Humans are risk-averse creatures and following along establish foot trails provides security, guidance and comfort.

When we follow behind others and attempt to careful retrace their footsteps – are we really helping ourselves? Is the success that is created by others the only road we must consider? There lies a problem with following successful people. Well, actually two problems.

The first is that in retrospect, anything can be meaningful. Those crazy random events that you originally thought were frustrating or great can become reinterpreted in a future narrative that puts everything in a neat-little story line. As German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said:

When you look back on your life, it looks as though it were a plot, but when you are into it, it’s a mess: just one surprise after another. Then, later, you see it was perfect.Schopenhauer

The second is that luck plays an essential role in what success actually is. Since we are able to only see success, we forget the hundreds of stories and experiences that just didn’t make the cut. It may seem disheartening to think of how vital a role luck plays. Are we certain that something was successful because the CEO told us it was his “hard work” and “hustle”, or simply because they were in the right place at the right time?

If success is created as a product of luck, how can we increase it? It turns out we can.

Research by psychologist, Richard Wiseman indicates that luck is simply the results of consciously interacting with chance.  Wiseman concludes, “that some people are just better at chance than others”.

Consider this experiment:

Psychologist Richard Wiseman created an experiment involving four hundred subjects from various backgrounds. The subjects were chosen after a newspaper ad was placed in a local paper asking for people who considered themselves to be either lucky or unlucky. Over the course of ten years, he requested participants to keep diaries, interviewed them and conducted various tests. In the most notable test, he asked subjects to count the number of photographs inside the newspaper.

Self-labeled lucky and unlucky people had hugely different completion times. Lucky people took a few seconds, whereas the unlucky people took two minutes. He later edited the newspaper and inserted a giant block of text on the second page that read, “Stop Counting. There are 43 photographs inside this newspaper.” This was followed by an equally large block of text on the follow page that read, “Stop counting, tell the experimenters you have seen this and win $250.” Surprisingly, the people who considered themselves unlucky missed BOTH!

Wiseman concluded that “being lucky” is actually a pattern of behavior. It’s basically our attitude towards random occurrences. More importantly, it’s that initial reaction when we experience something unexpected. Unlucky people crave the security that only a neat and tidy world can provide and as a result tend to be more anxious and narrowly focused. Lucky people just jump right in; they are open to whatever may happen. They aren’t as narrowly focused.

The result is that lucky people just experience more events and in a wider variety than intrinsically more anxious people. Lucky people don’t require the same security and were attracted to new experiences. The more things you try, the higher your chances of encountering that one thing that really works. So, good luck or bad luck is the result of humans interacting with chance—some people are just better at it than others.

The business maverick that takes the world by storm is the quintessential “lucky” person. We are blinded by their successes and attempt to nitpick them into little chunks of wisdom for us to absorb. Like the bombers that took the most damage we become blinded to the whole picture, instead focusing only on the visible success.

The result is a sea of missed opportunities that are everywhere. Lucky people seek out the experiences and look in places where others aren’t looking. They place themselves in situations where anything can happen and thus greatly increase their chances of “success”.

Increase your chances of success in life and business by looking and exploring those places where others aren’t. This may seem abstract and unactionable, but I assure you it is the only way to be truly “lucky”.

The harder I work, the luckier I get. – Gary Player.