NBC News
updated 12/10/2003 2:22:42 PM ET 2003-12-10T19:22:42

Are you one of those people who, no matter how many lottery and raffle tickets you buy, or contests you enter, feel like you never win anything. While your next door neighbor never seems to lose? “Dateline” correspondent Dennis Murphy spoke with Dr. Richard Wiseman, a man who has set out to prove, scientifically, that some people really are consistently followed by good fortune and others aren’t. And luck, he says, has nothing to do with it. Read an excerpt of his book below.

Chapter one: The Power of Luck
Entirely too much stress is put on the making of money. That does not require brains. Some of the biggest fools I know are the wealthiest. As a matter of fact, I believe that success is 95 percent luck and 5 percent ability. Take my own case. I know that there are any number of men in my employ who could run my business just as well as I can. They didn’t get the breaks — that’s the only difference between them and me.

— Julius Rosenwald, past president of Sears, Roebuck and Company

Luck exerts a dramatic influence over our lives. A few seconds of bad fortune can unravel years of striving, while a moment of good luck can lead to success and happiness. Luck has the power to transform the improbable into the possible; to make the difference between life and death, reward and ruin, happiness and despair.

John Woods, a senior partner in a large legal firm, narrowly escaped death when he left his office in one of the Twin Towers in New York seconds before the building was struck by a hijacked aircraft. This is not the only time that he has been lucky. He was on the thirty-ninth floor of the World Trade Center when it was bombed in 1993, but escaped without injury. In 1988, he was scheduled to be on the Pan-Am flight that exploded above Lockerbie in Scotland, but canceled at the last minute because he had been cajoled into attending an office party.

The effects of good and bad luck are not confined to matters of life and death. They can also make the difference between financial reward and ruin.

In June 1980, Maureen Wilcox bought tickets for both the Massachusetts lottery and the Rhode Island Lottery. Incredibly, she managed to choose the winning numbers for both lotteries but didn’t win a penny — her Massachusetts numbers won the Rhode Island lottery and her Rhode Island numbers won the Massachusetts lottery.

Other lottery players have had the gods of fortune smile on them. In 1985, Evelyn Marie Adams won $4 million on the New Jersey lottery. Four months later she entered again and won another $1.5 million. Even luckier was Donald Smith. He won the Wisconsin State lottery three times — in May 1993, June 1994, and July 1995 —collecting $250,000 each time. The chances of winning this lottery even once are over a million to one.

But it isn’t just about the money. Luck also plays a vital role in our personal lives. Stanford psychologist Alfred Bandura has discussed the impact of chance encounters and luck on people’s personal lives. Bandura notes both the importance and prevalence of such encounters, writing that “. . . some of the most important determinants of life paths often arise through the most trivial of circumstances.” He supports his case with several telling examples, one of which was drawn from his own life. As a graduate student, Bandura became bored with a reading assignment and so decided to visit the local golf links with a friend. Just by chance, Bandura and his friend found themselves playing behind two attractive female golfers, and soon joined them as a foursome. After the game, Bandura arranged to meet up with one of the women again, and eventually ended up marrying her. A chance meeting on a golf course altered his entire life.

In another example, Bandura described how a simple postal mix-up resulted in Ronald Reagan meeting his future wife Nancy. In the fall of 1949, Nancy Davis noticed her name in a list of Communist sympathizers that had been printed in a Hollywood newspaper. Nancy knew that her name did not belong there and that the mix-up was the result of there being another actress called Nancy Davis. She was concerned about the effect that the listing might have on her career, and so she asked her director to discuss the issue with the then president of the Screen Actors Guild, Ronald Reagan. Reagan assured her director that he understood the situation and that the SAG would defend Nancy Davis if anyone acted against her because they thought she was a Communist. Davis asked to meet with Reagan to discuss the issue further. The two of them met, quickly fell in love, and before long, were married to each other. One lucky meeting changed their lives forever.

A number of researchers have also discussed the effect of good and bad fortune on people’s choice of career and success in their professional lives. Once again, they have noted how the impact of these factors is often far from trivial, with many people reporting how chance meetings and lucky opportunities frequently led to a significant shift in career direction or a dramatic promotion. Indeed, the powerful effect of good and bad fortune on people’s professional lives has caused one of America’s leading career counselors to remark:

Each one of us could tell stories of how crucial, unplanned events have had a major career impact and how untold thousands of minor unplanned events have had at least a small impact. Influential unplanned events are not uncommon; they are everyday occurrences. Serendipity is not serendipitous. Serendipity is ubiquitous.

These types of factors have certainly influenced my own career. When I was eight I was asked to complete a school project on the history of chess. Being a diligent young student, I decided to pay a visit to my local library to find some books on the topic. Quite by chance, I was directed to the wrong shelf and came across some books on conjuring. I was curious, and started to read all about the secrets that magicians use to achieve the impossible. This was my first introduction to the world of magic, and it influenced the whole of my life. I have no idea what might have happened if I had been directed to the correct shelf and found the chess books. Perhaps I wouldn’t have developed an interest in magic, trained as a psychologist, or conducted the research described in this book.

Luck has also exerted a considerable influence on the careers of many highly successful businesspeople.

By the end of his career, Joseph Pulitzer was an extraordinarily successful businessman and philanthropist. He owned one of the largest newspapers in America, helped raise money to fund the pedestal on which the Statue of Liberty now stands, and endowed the world-famous Pulitzer Prize for writing. Yet all of this might never have happened if it weren’t for just one lucky break. Pulitzer was born in Hungary. As a young man he suffered from both poor health and extremely bad eyesight. When he was seventeen, he came to America as a penniless immigrant but found it difficult to find employment. As a result, Pulitzer spent a great deal of time playing chess in his local library. On one such visit he happened to meet an editor of a local newspaper. This chance encounter resulted in Pulitzer being offered a job as a junior reporter. After four years he was given the opportunity to buy shares in the paper and jumped at the offer. It was a shrewd decision — the paper proved highly successful and Pulitzer made a considerable profit. Pulitzer continued to make highly successful decisions throughout his life, and he became an editor, and eventually owner, of two of the best-known newspapers of his day. By the end of his career, the man who had started his working life as a poor immigrant had become one of the most influential people in America. His entire career might have taken a completely different direction had it not been for a chance meeting in the chess room of his local library.

Many other businesspeople have also put much of their success down to chance meetings and good luck. Take, for example, the case of Barnett Helzberg Jr. By 1994 Helzberg had built up a chain of highly successful American jewelry stores with an annual revenue of around $300 million. One day he was walking past the Plaza Hotel in New York when he heard a woman call out “Mr. Buffett” to the man next to him. Helzberg wondered whether the man might be Warren Buffett — one of the most successful investors in America. Helzberg had never met Buffett but had read about the financial criteria that Buffett used when buying a company. Helzberg had recently turned sixty, was thinking of selling his company, and realized that his might be the type of company that would interest Buffett. Helzberg seized the opportunity, walked over to the stranger, and introduced himself. The man did indeed turn out to be Warren Buffett and the chance meeting proved highly fortuitous because about a year later Buffett agreed to buy Helzberg’s chain of stores. And all because Helzberg just happened to be walking by as a woman called out Buffett’s name on a street corner in New York.

And how did Buffett get to be one of the richest men in America? In an interview in Fortune magazine, Buffett explained the important role that luck had played early on in his career. When he was twenty, Buffett was rejected from Harvard Business School. He immediately went to a library and began looking into the possibility of applying to other business schools. It was only then that he noticed that two business professors whose work he admired both taught at Columbia. Buffett applied to Columbia at the last minute and was accepted. One of the professors later became Buffett’s mentor and helped initiate his highly successful career in business. As Buffett later remarked, “Probably the luckiest thing that ever happened to me was getting rejected from Harvard.”

The important role that luck plays in people’s careers is not limited just to the world of business.

In 1954, Shirley MacLaine was an unknown actress and had accepted a small part in the chorus of a new musical. She was asked to understudy for the star of the show, Carol Haney, but never rehearsed for the part because Haney had a reputation for going on with the show, regardless of illness or injury. The show opened and Haney received rave reviews. MacLaine was considering giving her notice and taking a part in another show. Then, one night she arrived at the theater and was told that Haney had broken her ankle and simply could not perform. MacLaine was asked to take over the lead. Despite a lack of rehearsal, MacLaine rose to the occasion and received a great reaction from the audience. The following night Hal Wallis, a well-known Hollywood producer, was in the audience and offered her a seven-year contract. Soon afterward, a representative of Alfred Hitchcock saw MacLaine and offered her a part in a forthcoming Hitchcock film.

MacLaine is far from the only celebrity to have her career launched through luck. In 1979, Hollywood producer George Miller was looking for a battle-weary, scarred, tough guy to play the lead in the movie Mad Max. The night before his audition, Mel Gibson, then an unknown and sensitive-looking Australian actor, was attacked on the street by three drunks. He arrived for the audition looking beaten and tired, and Miller immediately offered him the part.

British supermodel Kate Moss was equally fortuitous. In the early 1990s she was on vacation with her father. The two of them were standing in a check-in line at JFK Airport when a talent scout walked past and noticed her striking looks. Moss went on to become one of the world’s most successful and sought-after models — and all because of a lucky chance encounter.

And luck does not determine the success of just actors and models — it even affects the careers and success of scientists and politicians.

Perhaps the most famous example of such scientific serendipity is Sir Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin. In the 1920s, Fleming was working to develop more effective antibiotics. Part of his work involved the microscopic examination of bacteria that had been artificially grown in flat glass containers known as petri dishes. Fleming inadvertently left one of the petri dishes uncovered, and a piece of mold fell into the dish. By chance, the mold contained a substance that killed the type of bacteria in the dish. Fleming noticed the effect of the mold, was intrigued, and worked hard to identify the substance responsible for killing the bacteria. He eventually discovered the antibiotic and named it penicillin. Fleming’s chance discovery has saved countless lives and has been hailed as one of the biggest advances in the history of medicine.

In fact, chance events and accidental discoveries have frequently altered the course of science and have played an important part in many famous discoveries and inventions, including the contraceptive pill, X rays, photography, safety glass, artificial sweeteners, Velcro, insulin, and aspirin.

The role of luck in politics is illustrated in the career of President Harry Truman. As a young man, Truman experienced a great deal of ill fortune. He intended to go to college after graduating from high school, but his father lost almost everything in a bad business venture, and so Truman was forced to spend his formative years plowing his grandfather’s farm. Soon after the First World War he started a clothing store in Kansas City, but again experienced bad luck when he was made bankrupt during the recession. It was not until his late thirties that he obtained his first lucky break — a friend encouraged him to run as county judge and he unexpectedly won the contest. When he was forty-two, he ran for presiding judge and once again won. A few years later, he was nominated for the U.S. Senate and again won. In 1944, the Democrats dropped the then vice president Henry Wallace and nominated Truman as a running mate to Franklin D. Roosevelt. Then, just eighty-two days into his new term, Roosevelt unexpectedly died, making Truman president. Truman’s good luck continued throughout his presidency — he pulled off one of the biggest upsets in American political history by beating Thomas E. Dewey in the 1948 presidential election and, just a few years later, survived an assassination attempt by two Puerto Rican nationalists. In his memoirs, Truman wrote: “Popularity and glamour are only part of the factors involved in winning elections. One of the most important of all is luck. In my case, luck was always with me.”

In short, luck plays a hugely significant role in many different aspects of our lives. Luck has the power to transform both our personal and professional lives. To many, this is a terrifying idea. Most people like to think that they are in control of their future. They try hard to obtain certain outcomes and avoid others. But, to a large extent, this feeling of control is an illusion. Luck makes a mockery of even our best intentions. It has the power to change everything, within seconds, for better or worse. And it can do so any time, any place, and without warning.

For over a hundred years, psychologists have studied how our lives are affected by our intelligence, personality, genes, appearance, and upbringing. There can be little doubt that the work has yielded considerable insight into the human condition. Yet, despite the enormity of the effort, very little work has examined good and bad luck. I suspect that psychologists have avoided the topic because they prefer, quite understandably, to examine factors they can measure and control more easily. Measuring intelligence and categorizing people’s personalities is relatively straightforward, but how do you quantify luck and control chance?

The situation is akin to the old story of the man who knows he dropped some treasure in one part of the street but searches in another part because the light is better there. Psychologists have chosen not to investigate luck because it is much easier to examine other topics. But I have always been interested in trying to examine unusual areas of psychology, areas that other researchers tend to avoid. The result is that I have often found treasure in places that other people have ignored.

In the Introduction to this book I described how I became interested in luck after hearing about how important it had been in the lives of people who attended one of my talks. Soon after that talk I decided to conduct some initial research into the topic. I began by carrying out a survey to discover the percentage of people who considered themselves lucky or unlucky, and whether people’s luck tended to be concentrated in one or two areas of their lives or spread across many different areas. Together with a group of my students, I visited the center of London at different times over the course of a week and asked a large number of randomly chosen shoppers about the role of luck in their lives. There were two parts to the survey. First, we asked them whether they considered themselves lucky or unlucky-that is, whether seemingly chance events in their lives had consistently tended to work out in their favor or against them. Second, we asked them whether they had been lucky or unlucky in eight different areas of their lives, including their careers, relationships, home life, health, and financial matters.

We surveyed a very wide range of people — men and women, old and young. The results revealed that 50 percent of people indicated that they had been consistently lucky and a further 14 percent said that they had been consistently unlucky. In other words, 64 percent, or nearly two thirds, of the people questioned indicated that they were consistently lucky or unlucky. Interestingly, there was a very strong tendency for people who said that they had been lucky in one area of their lives to indicate that they had also been lucky in several others. People who were lucky in their financial lives also reported being lucky in their home lives, and people who were unlucky in their careers were also unlucky in their relationships.

This simple survey showed that most people were indicating an amazing level of consistency in their experience of good and bad luck. Certain people seemed able to consistently attract good luck while others were a magnet for ill fortune. Interestingly, most of the people we interviewed were convinced that their good and bad luck was simply the result of pure chance. Lucky people just happened to live lives that were peppered with chance encounters-such as meetings with loved ones and business colleagues-that always worked out for the best. The unlucky people thought that accidents and ill fortune came their way also by chance alone. I was far from convinced. A lifetime studying the psychology of magic had led me to realize that things are often not as they appear, and that reality is sometimes stranger, and more interesting, than the illusion.

Luck could not simply be the outcome of chance events. There were too many people consistently experiencing good and bad luck for it all to be chance. Instead, there must be something causing things to work out consistently well for some people and consistently badly for others. Given the importance of luck, it seemed vital to try to understand why this was the case. Were these people really destined to succeed or fated to fail? Were they part of some huge, cosmic game plan? Were they using some form of psychic ability to create good and bad luck? Or could it all be explained in terms of differences in their beliefs and behavior? Most important of all, if we understood more about what was happening, would it be possible to enhance people’s luck?

My survey had raised many interesting questions. I set out to find some answers.

Excerpted from “The Luck Factor: Changing Your Luck, Changing Your Life: The Four Essential Principles” by Dr. Richard Wiseman. Copyright © 2003. Excerpted by permission of Miramax Books.

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