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The Vocabulary of Luck

How changing your definition of luck might bring you more of it.


by Janice Holly Booth

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When you reimagine your life, does a whole lot of luck play a role in your future? Does luck feel elusive, one of those mysterious gifts showered by the universe upon others but rarely upon you? There’s good news: luck – according to many successful individuals – is easily influenced by intention. “Luck,” says Oprah Winfrey, “is preparation meeting opportunity.” Woody Allen famously said that the luck and success he’s enjoyed in his career is “eighty percent showing up.” And now there’s proof to back his claim.

Psychologist Richard Wiseman, author of The Luck Factor, conducted a series of experiments to prove or disprove the influence of chance or luck that made some people seem more lucky than others. Wiseman found that “lucky” people possess four basic psychological traits unlucky people don’t. “Lucky” people maximize chance opportunities; they listen to their intuition; they display optimism and expect good fortune; and they are capable of seeing the positive outcomes of a “bad luck” situation.

What about serendipity? Voted in 2004 as one of the ten English words hardest to translate, serendipity is pretty much accepted as meaning a “happy accident” or a “pleasant surprise,” although a man once insisted that “serendipity is looking in a haystack for a needle and discovering a farmer’s daughter.” It is because of the unpredictable nature of serendipitous events that we tend to place them in a similar category as “luck.” But in Wiseman’s experiments, the same people who turned out to be luckier than others were the people who took advantage of unforeseen, “serendipitous” opportunities, like the man who attended a business luncheon expecting it to be a waste of time and met the perfect, willing investor for his start-up. Serendipity always rewards those prepared to answer when opportunity knocks.

Did you feel that? It’s intuition Albert Einstein had this to say about it: “I believe in intuitions and inspirations…I sometimes feel that I am right. I do not know that I am.” The man who developed the theory of relativity and who is generally regarded as one of the greatest minds in history believed in following his intuition, even if he couldn’t be sure where it was taking him. “It’s not that I’m so smart,” he said, “It’s just that I stay with problems longer. ”Florence Scovel Shinn, a popular thought leader of the 1920’s and ‘30’s, said that “intuition is a spiritual faculty and does not explain, it simply points the way.” Was Einstein “lucky” or did he optimistically follow his intuition down an unknown, yet serendipitous path?

Fate & Destiny The world is full of stories about people who overcame astounding odds to achieve a destiny different than what may have been mapped out for them: Helen Keller, Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, Winston Churchill. The child who looks around his slum neighborhood and believes he will live there his whole life probably will. “If a man is destined to drown,” says the old Yiddish proverb, “he will drown even in a spoonful of water.” So powerful are our beliefs in personal destiny that they will either shackle us to that mindset or free us from it. Steve Jobs had this to say: “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards…You have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” It’s true: our destiny is entirely within our sphere of influence.

The Last Word Two university researchers created something called the BIGL (Belief in Good Luck) scale, (no, we are not making this up!). They found some interesting differences among cultures and ethnicities, but one trait was consistent among all those who took the test: People who believe in personal good luck react to lucky events by becoming more positive about the likelihood of future success. If a reinvention is on your horizon, consider redefining your personal vocabulary of luck and its close relatives; serendipity, intuition, fate, and destiny. Start today by focusing on how you can connect those words to the thoughts and deeds that will create a luckier, more optimistic you.

Photo credits: Origami fortune tellers Catherine MacBride/Getty Images Fortune Cookies Sethinacan/Getty Images