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Nineteen Ways to Get Lucky

A Guide to Exploiting Opportunities

How do you define luck? Webster defines it this way: a "chance happening of fortunate or adverse events." It's a cliché, but some people just seem to have more luck--good or bad--than others. It sounds like a strange question, but is it really a chance happening? The answer, I think, is that, yes, luck is just luck. It is a chance happening. But what you do with it, how well you defend yourself against the bad kind and take advantage of whatever good luck comes along--that isn't merely chance. After many years of studying successful people, it is my belief that there are ways to tap into luck and make it work overtime for you.

The most successful entrepreneurs are often described as "lucky," despite the fact that many of them have suffered their share of failures. Read a few biographies of winning business people and successful scientists from the last century and you'll find that many of them happened upon a significant amount of "right place at the right time" (a form of luck). I've confirmed this myself on many occasions--when in the past I have conducted in-depth interviews on behalf of client companies, I am always surprised at how many prosperous people have had luck or coincidence come to their aid. The smart (i.e., lucky) ones recognize its impact and invite it in when it comes knocking.

A decade ago, bestselling author Tom Peters wrote about this topic in ChemTech (January 1993, p. 10). Peters described the two ways that one can manage career success. One of these approaches is the traditional "Up early in the morning, work harder than the other guy" method. Tom's second type of success story was far more interesting: These are men and women who, although they also have a solid work ethic, somehow manage to stay lucky. That, anyway, was Tom Peters's view, and I think he might be right.

"There are strategies that you can pursue to lure luck out of hiding," he says. After I read the article, I began to see more of this ethereal element in every success that I have had. Behind each well-thought-out move on my part there was some element of luck. This is true whether it was good timing, the coincidence of meeting the right person at the right time, or just a flash of insight that came--or was recognized for what it is--because I was prepared. And it is this--preparation--that attracts luck to your side.

Some people describe luck as "opportunity awareness." That's not a bad description. It sounds odd, but the list below might be thought of as a how-to manual on being lucky. As you study the list, think about some projects that you are involved in right now; is there anything you can do to be a little bit luckier? If you are a job seeker, attracting luck and coincidence to your side could make the difference between a painless, rewarding 3-month project and a year-long (or more) marathon!

Things to Do If You Want to Get Lucky

1. Go through your contact database or that old stack of business cards and send a random half-dozen people a personal note with an article reprint that you think they would benefit from. Or just send them a personal note.

2. Explore the social activities available at the next conference you are attending. Sign up for golf, tennis, or any activity where you will have a chance to make new acquaintances.

3. Pay attention to your next coincidence. Is there anything that could be learned from that apparently chance encounter, perhaps something you might do intentionally in the future ... something you might be able to use to your advantage? Ask yourself, "Why did I bump into this person today?" (Assuming you weren't driving different cars, bumping into someone is almost always a good thing.)

4. Put a "Friday Afternoon Phone Call" program into effect. Each Friday, call two or three professional friends, mentors, and networking contacts. With no intent other than to keep in touch, you will be surprised by the beneficial information and relationships that a program like this can bring to you. And they'll appreciate the fact that you thought of them.

5. Someone you know is working too hard. Lighten that person's load by accepting part of their responsibility. It will, mostly likely, be repaid many times over with an improved relationship.

6. The next time someone asks you for advice on a problem, look that person in the eye and really care about what you are hearing. Give them your best, whether it be advice or--if you have no advice to give--a bit of compassion.

7. Take a course on communication skills and learn why you and your boss don't see eye-to-eye on things. As in all relationships with bosses, it is your responsibility to fix it (that, anyway, is how you ought to think).

8. Call someone from your favorite scientific association and ask how you can help. A role such as Membership Chair or Newsletter Editor would require a modest commitment of time, but could be potentially very good for your future. Be careful, though, not to overcommit.

9. Have you opened any new channels of thought lately? Read great books on creativity and innovation, such as Edward de Bono's Six Thinking Hats, or Jack Foster's How to Get Ideas. For some people, just reading a good novel, or listening to some music, or merely getting a good night's sleep, can lead to new ideas.

10. Develop a 2-minute, 5-minute, and 10-minute version to the popular interview question, "Tell me a little about yourself." You never know when you'll need to deliver it. Be prepared.

11. Pay attention to your gestures and body positions and those of other people you interact with. Change the way you are sitting or standing until you are in the position you'd assume when you are most energized. Keep it that way. You'd be surprised at what your body position does to your brain--not to mention what it communicates to the people you interact with.

12. Break your morning routine. Each of us has a system that we use every day to get going. Whatever it is, change it. Break the routine and leave yourself open for something new. Do you usually go to the club after work? Try the 6 a.m. yoga class!

13. Are you awake to the clues that luck places around you? The science of immunology was developed out of a mistake that Pasteur's assistant made in giving too weak a dose of cholera to chickens. Many people wouldn't have thought to investigate the effect this mistake had on the chickens' immune responses.

14. Learn "Mindmapping," a visual method of brainstorming developed by researcher Tony Buzan in the late 1970s. Those who know this method well can take any lucky idea and flesh it out in a moment or two with a simple pad of paper (see The three steps for new ideas are: Preparation, Incubation, and Illumination. Dig out the facts, digest them, and forget them for a time. Somewhere down the road, luck will tickle your mind and illuminate a potential idea.

15. Develop a method to remember people's names. Anyone can do it, and there are several excellent books filled with tips on this process. As Dale Carnegie said, there is nothing more important to a person than the sound of her name. Remember people's names and they will long remember you.

16. Find a way to tap all the resources that your boss offers. Is there a technical or business area in which your boss truly excels? Do you have a plan in place to learn as much as you can from her while you have the chance?

17. Go somewhere boring--on purpose. Find out what comes to the surface when all you have to do is read and reflect.

18. The old philosophy about keeping your head down with your nose to the grindstone doesn't work--it leads only to the painful removal of your nose. You need to be visible, and to look around. What have you done to increase your visibility in your field and an awareness of what others are doing? Do you know the results that other people are getting before they are published? That's a good indicator of being "plugged in."

19. Do something that scares you. Feel the power of overcoming a fear of public speaking, skydiving, or anything else that you're afraid of. It will give you an energy boost, an injection of confidence, and is likely to get you out of that rut you're in.

I close this chapter of Tooling Up with an old Babylonian proverb. Please pardon the gender bias; the Babylonians were not known for their sensitivity to gender equality:

"If a man be lucky, there is no foretelling the possible extent of his good fortune. Pitch him into the Euphrates and like as not he will swim out with a pearl in his hand."

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