Strongly Emergent

What comes from combining humans, computers, and narrative

You Can Learn to Be Lucky

I stumbled on an article in the Telegraph by Richard Wiseman. Wiseman ran a study for ten years, selecting both lucky and unlucky people, and looked for common traits among them. We think of luck as something outside of our control. Some of it is: there’s nothing you can do to improve your odds in matters of pure chance like the lottery. But what you can do is look for opportunity.

Consider one experiment, of which Wiseman writes:

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 more than 2 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.

We are all human, and our brains all operate in similar ways. One of the things that our brains spend a lot of time doing is deciding what’s important and what’s not before we ever consciously think about it. That’s good, because you’d rather not spend much time thinking about how to breathe, walk, or eat. But since so many unconscious decisions are going on, your brain sometimes dismisses important things. I’m sure we’re all familiar with the opposite, where your brain makes a big deal out of something unimportant. The good news is that you can train your unconscious mind to be better at noticing the things that matter to you.

Wiseman’s research ties into one of my favorite books: Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell spends a lot of time going through different ways that our unconscious mind can, with training, with proper care and feeding, produce miraculous results. He and Wiseman also show how badly we can go astray when we abandon responsibility for what we feed our brains.

I’d like to note one important implication this has for IT folks, both for sysadmins and for front-line support people. A computer professional thinks differently from the people who rely on them. That’s good, because you need someone who thinks in the same framework that the creators of computer hardware and software do. However, that can’t be the only thing that an IT person knows how to do. An IT person must be a translator: they must help messages get from the creators of software to the users. This is like being a lucky person around unlucky people: because you are thinking differently, you will see different opportunities, you will take different paths, and it may be a little frustrating that the “unlucky” users don’t seem to follow your logic and don’t understand your advice. Be patient. In both cases, the skills can be learned.

Learning how to communicate with users takes years. Learning how to be lucky is also time-consuming, but Wiseman provides us with some more compact advice.

Unlucky people often fail to follow their intuition when making a choice, whereas lucky people tend to respect hunches. Lucky people are interested in how they both think and feel about the various options, rather than simply looking at the rational side of the situation. […] Unlucky people tend to be creatures of routine. They tend to take the same route to and from work and talk to the same types of people at parties. In contrast, many lucky people try to introduce variety into their lives. For example, one person described how he thought of a colour before arriving at a party and then introduced himself to people wearing that colour. This kind of behaviour boosts the likelihood of chance opportunities by introducing variety. […] Lucky people tend to see the positive side of their ill fortune. They imagine how things could have been worse.

None of these things are inherent to a person: you can learn to change your mind, and you should. Do these things work? Wiseman claims that they do:

I asked a group of lucky and unlucky volunteers to spend a month carrying out exercises designed to help them think and behave like a lucky person. These exercises helped them spot chance opportunities, listen to their intuition, expect to be lucky, and be more resilient to bad luck. One month later, the volunteers returned and described what had happened. The results were dramatic: 80 per cent of people were now happier, more satisfied with their lives and, perhaps most important of all, luckier.