The Scientific Approach to Becoming Your Own Good Luck Charm

Think about the luckiest thing that’s ever happened to you. Got it? Good. We’ll come back to that later.

Maybe you’re dismissive about the concept of luck. And it makes sense. When you consider the ways we’re taught to attract it, a slew of groundless ideas come to mind.

Still, luck is so powerful a pull that I find myself adopting behaviors to outsmart lady luck. I won’t pass the dirtiest penny on the street without pocketing it. My knuckles are raw from their incessant wood-knocking. Since I was a kid, I’ve collected little talismans in a hollowed seashell case. I refuse to set foot on the University of Michigan Diag’s copper “M.” In my family, we have a luck-attracting tradition of saying “rabbit rabbit” as soon as we wake up on the first day of the new month. This month, I slipped up and said, “What time is it?” instead, and I still feel a degree of panic about the bad luck I’ve invited into this dark wintery month.

A Lucky Break in Scientific Research

Of course, at some level, we all know this is superstitious hogwash. On the other hand, I’ve observed in my life periods of good fortune and bad fortune. And I think we all know folks who seem unable to catch a break while others bounce through life on a series of improbable bouts of good fortune.

This all started to make more sense after I read an article last month that provided a more rational view on how to generate luck. I can’t stop thinking about it. TL;DR – luck doesn’t have much to do with being lucky.

In a two-year experiment run by British Psychologist Richard Wiseman, participants rated their own sense of luckiness. Then they reviewed a section of a newspaper, and Wiseman instructed them to count all the photos and report the quantity to the proctor. If they reported the accurate number, they’d win a small cash prize. Hidden in plain sight on the page was a large text block that read, “Stop counting, tell the experimenter you have seen this, and win $250.”

You guessed it, participants who had rated themselves luckier found the message nearly twice as frequently as those who admitted to being unlucky. Luck, the researchers posit, is a function of one’s peripheral awareness.

What’s Luck Got to Do With It?

To me, this makes perfect sense. What I’d seen of as some of the most profoundly lucky events in my life, I can more accurately think of as times I let in — and acted on — seemingly irrelevant information. The story of how I joined Atomic is the most meaningful example of these.

Normally, I tell the story this way:

“I stumbled backward into this job that changed my life. I was working as a grant writer for a nonprofit when I won a grant (to build a mobile app) that I had no business winning. I had no idea how to build an app, so I scheduled a call with Carl Erickson. Carl missed the call, but when I followed up, he apologetically rescheduled in Atomic’s Ann Arbor office. At the end of that meeting, Carl mentioned that Atomic was searching for a Marketing Specialist to join their team. I demurred.

Two days later, Carl called, asking if I wanted to meet Hillary Clinton when she made a private campaign stop in Atomic’s Grand Rapids office the next day. I wriggled out of work and drove across the state, where I got to meet Hillary Clinton, sit dumbfounded in the lights of national news media, and spend a day with some wonderful Atoms. That day, I realized that I’d better apply to that Marketing Job, after all. Four years later, I still can’t believe my luck at the way this has all worked out!”

When rereading this story through Wiseman’s psychological lens, I see the ways my peripheral awareness had everything to do with this lucky break. From writing a grant that stretched beyond my organization’s capabilities, to following up with Carl after the missed call, to ditching work and driving across the state on a whim — I acted with optimism.

Consider your lucky memory from before. How can you retell that story with a focus on your powers of keen awareness and willingness to capitalize on chance encounters?

How to Lose Your Lucky Streak

Since my lucky day in 2016, I’ve worked hard at Atomic, earned an MBA, and been promoted into a Director role. For the first time, I’m managing a growing team. I love the work I’m doing, but I also find myself feeling perpetual low-grade stress. The stakes seem higher now, especially as Atomic seeks to spread into new markets.

In response to the stress, I’ve created more rigidity in my life than I’ve ever had. To keep up with the stricter schedule, I’ve found myself turning down more chance encounters, networking events, spur of the moment ideas, and last-minute invitations from friends. I wouldn’t say I’ve hit a spell of bad luck, but in writing this blog post, I’ve realized that I have less of that effervescent sense of good fortune than I used to. Instead of focusing on the chance upside, I find myself anxiously guarding and trying to maintain the good things in my life.

Wiseman has a theory on this as well; he found in a second study that anxiety disrupts folks’ ability to notice the unexpected.

…And How to Get it Back

Luckily for me, Wiseman published a list of practices to bring back a little peripheral awareness and spontaneity into your life to increase my odds of good fortune. I’ll share some here in case you’d like to cultivate your luck-garnering practice alongside me:

  • Alter your commute to work for a week.
  • Pick a situation where you habitually zone out on your phone (e.g., waiting in line), and make an effort to unplug and observe what’s happening around you in those moments.
  • Before you enter your next social gathering, select a color, and make an effort to speak to everyone at the party wearing that color.
  • Visit a travel deal website and purchase the first trip to a place you’ve never been that you can afford.
  • Ask your friends and family to tell you a story of the luckiest thing that’s ever happened to them. Ask clarifying questions to get inspired about new ways to welcome luck in.
  • Say “yes” more often (Shonda Rhimes’ “Year of ‘Yes'” is a wonderful read and a great narrative about a brilliant woman crawling out of a bad luck rut).

Try some of these or some of your own ideas out along with me, and let’s see how many unexpectedly (or rather, expectedly) good things come our way.