Making Your Own Luck is No "Secret"


Nora Dunn's recent post about The Prosperity Game got me thinking. I do not believe that quantum physics has anything to do with your outlook on life or how much money you make. However, I have definitely noticed how some people seem to have all the luck, while everyone knows one or more downtrodden people who are perpetually asking, "Why does everything happen to me?"

 First a disclaimer: Plain dumb luck DOES play a major role in our lives. Readers of this blog are among the luckiest people in the world: Most of us were born in wealthy Western nations, we can read English, and we have access to computers and the Internet, for starters. One thing I have learned with travel is that I was born with a whole fistfull of winning lottery tickets, without even knowing it.

But, assuming a group of Americans all born middle class, with a similar amount of opportunities, why will some people become those who "have all the luck" and some become those to whom "stuff happens"?

It has a lot to do with what Wise Bread is about: Managing your life wisely to create security, taking advantage of opportunities and planning.

Here's an example that tells the whole story of the haves and have-nots of luck: All cars get old and need more and more maintenance to continue running. This reality is well known, and yet different people use that information differently than others.

Say that Lucky Eddie and Calamity Jane go out and buy the best cars they can afford. Lucky Eddie researches Consumer Reports' reliability data, scours Craigslist or newspaper ads, and is able to pay cash for a 5-year-old compact car. Calamity Jane goes to a used car dealer and pays the same amount for an 8-year-old sedan that she felt to be "really cute."

 Lucky Eddie figures he can put another 100,000 miles on his new car, so he puts a little money aside each month towards the car's replacement in four years. He gets regular maintenance and oil changes.

Jane doesn't think about any of that and just drives her car.

Two years later Lucky Eddie and Calamity Jane both lose their jobs. Lucky Eddie decides to borrow from his car stash to take a computer class at the local community college. When his car breaks down on his way to class, he has AAA tow it to his garage, knowing he can't afford to have it fixed right now. He takes the bus to the rest of his classes.

Jane, who doesn't have a car stash, takes advantage of her time off to take a road trip to California. Her now-10-year-old car, which has been burning oil, runs dry and breaks down in the middle of the desert. When a passing motorist takes pity and gives her a lift to a service station (she doesn't have AAA and her cell phone battery is dead), she tells him about her latest run of bad luck: no job, stranded in the middle of nowhere with a dead car.

Meanwhile, Lucky Eddie has landed a new, better job with his computer training and is able to use some of his signing bonus to buy a later-model used car. He can't stop telling friends how lucky he was to land this exciting new job just as his unemployment benefits were about to run out.

If you find Lucky Eddie's hard work story square or boring, replace it with whatever works for you. Maybe Lucky Eddie spent some time playing The Prosperity Game and it awakened his imagination, leading him to take a chance on marketing a widget he invented.

I guess it's the old story of the ant and the grasshopper, but it rings much truer to me than "The Secret": Plan for life's ups and downs, and someone else's calamity is merely a footnote on your annual budget.

I won't be smug and say that I would be just fine if the janjaweed came pounding on my door or Lake Michigan tsunami'd all over my house. Nor do I imagine that my present circumstances aren't thanks in part to good luck. I But I do know that planning and hard work has protected my family from becoming perpetual victims of "bad luck."

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Guest's picture

I would like to add that good planning sometimes enables you to take advantage of good luck when it happens.

For example, my husband got turned down for a competitive college program ("bad luck") because of his college performance 10 years ago, and we figured he would be at home or perhaps working this semester. I convinced him to go to the college and argue his case since he now has a great GPA. He did, and they took him ("good luck!") just a few days before classes started!

We are a low-income, one-income family. But since we have been diligently saving and holding down debt, we easily paid cash for his sudden "good luck" tuition, books, and transportation. We will get financial aid but it would have arrived after the due date for payment.

It's a tiny blip on our financial radar, but for many people it would mean high credit card debt or worse, might even prevent this opportunity! I know many people who earn far more than me with fewer savings for emergencies.

I feel truly blessed. As Americans, we live better in poverty than many people in foreign countries who have a relatively high income. In this kind of environment I think most people can make their own luck and happiness.

Guest's picture

I am a lucky person. I don't know anything about "The Secret" or quantum physics, but I do know that I am observant and imaginative. At least some part of luck seems to be paying attention and noticing things AND imagining the possibilities. A practical example would be (similar, I believe, to many of the postings on this blog)--noticing that something will be available (something is being thrown away/is on sale, or someone is moving and getting rid of something) and imagining a way to process those things to make something marketable.

Along the lines of Carrie's post, knowing what you want can increase your luck--but only if you are paying attention. A few times in my life, I have made a list of the exact requirements of what I wanted in a new job--and found/got hired for that job within a short time--including one time when there was a typo in the advertisement and I was the only person who was able to track down the hiring party and apply for the job. But that was only because I KNEW from my list that it was exactly what I wanted. I felt lucky, but it was knowing what I wanted, paying attention, and following through.

Guest's picture

Someone once told me that Luck is when "Preparation meets Opportunity"

Guest's picture

Everything is relative. You say we (i.e. educated Americans) are born with a handful of lottery tickets. That's true, if the lottery is in, say, a third world country; but not if, say, the lottery is in New York City or LA or much of the US.

If you can tolerate a lower standard of living and survive a less healthy environment, you can take those lottery tickets to a depressed environment and cash them in. Kind of like currency trading.

But if you want to stay in the same country, near the same amount of urbanity and culture, etc., then your lottery tickets won't be worth quite as much.

Guest's picture

Yes, there are times that "gifts" simply fall into your lap. However, usually "luck" is a windfall from careful planning or persistance. Here's an example: When I was in college, I was as poor as most students. In wasting some time on the internet between classes one day, I stumbled upon a website that offered a sweepstakes to pay your rent for one month. It was a website for apartment-hunting (no, I don't remember the name, so please don't contact me asking me what it was), but they offered an opportunity to enter daily to have your rent paid. There was a monthly drawing with one winner each month. Guess what I did? I entered every day. Every single day. It took about 30 seconds of my time and since I was a student, I was on the computer at least once a day anyway, so it was no real struggle for me. I entered every day for 3 years (the first year I was living in the dorm with rent paid via scholarship). Guess what? I won. Twice. Two wins over 1068 days of entries doesn't seem too lucky (I have no idea how many people entered this thing), but on those two days I was notified, I felt like the luckiest person on earth. And my roommates loved me for it too! =) It's often all relative.

Guest's picture

A friend once talked me into actually writing down on a paper all the qualities that I would like to have in my spouse. I was single then. The friend argued that if I write it down, I'll get a spouse who will HAVE all of those qualities.
I didn't believe him, but I did write them on a piece of paper.
Sure enough!!! Within a couple of months I met my husband, and he DOES have all the qualities that I jotted down on that paper. I even showed it to him, after we got engaged. The reason behind this still remains a mystery but I still think that writing it down on a paper did have something to do with it.

Guest's picture
Nicole J.

I believe that luck comes to those with plans and faith that those plans will come to fruition. You can't sit in your house and wish a great new job into existence. But you also can't get what you don't think you deserve.

Guest's picture

I loved this post!! Too often we hear about what happens TO people. And it's usually not people who will MAKE things happen for themselves! Hooray for personal accountability and taking the reins in your own life!!

Thanks for a good post. Needless to say, I couldn't agree more. It's harder to be responsible, but people will never learn to be responsible if it's not what's expected of them.

Carrie Kirby's picture

The exact same thing happened to a friend of mine. I didn't know she had done this until she said it in her wedding vows.

 I, on the other hand, was the one agonizing over a list of pros and cons over my future husband. Ten years later, I'm glad I didn't let the long list of cons sway me! A lot of those things, he has grown out of -- we were after all only 22 at the time. The "cons" that he still has, either I have learned to ignore or they are just worth it.

Guest's picture
Joe A

Luck is label we place on some event or impact; in the case where it's positive, it's "good" luck. I don't believe anyone can argue we are what we eat, and the same holds true for those things which occur in our lives. Granted, something unfortunate can occur, like a rock falling from the sky and hitting you on the head, but that is certainly a random event based on the pure physics of the universe. That rock may have been jettisoned from the Kyper Belt some billions of miles out a million years ago; and it's now just hitting the planet because it, and you are in the way.

We create much of our reality. This is a fact. We consider winning the lottery lucky, but a lottery is random. We only can win if we put ourself in the position of winning; just as with life.

Guest's picture

I had a thought about a funny scene in Billy Crystal's movie Forget Paris.

He was referring to how in war movies, there is always one character who longs to be home with his family- and ends up dying in the next scene.

I had this strange laugh emanating from me thinking about how we're all posting about how we're all set and ready for adversity.

I don't want to consider the next scene.

(crosses fingers and spits to avoid the Jinx).

Guest's picture

I read an article about a study of "luck." It was found that lucky people are those people that recognize an opportunity and able to capitalize on it. "Dumb" luck can happen to anyone.

Guest's picture

I once read that "Good luck is simply the residue of good design" It was in reference to a sucsessful sports team.

Guest's picture

It's all about taking opportunities presented - being prepared to do so.

Luck, if you could attract it, change it, bend it in any way, wouldn't be Luck, it'd be called something else.

Guest's picture

We were not all born middle class.

Anyway, Luck favors the prepared mind. Taking classes, having a good attitude, etc. will bend the odds in your favor

Guest's picture

When people talk about luck, I'm always reminded of the story of the farmer and horse. Here is one version of the story -- you can find dozens of versions around the net. Here's another. To use the metaphor of the article above, what if Jane meets the man of her dreams hitch-hiking in the desert and Eddie gets a brain tumor at his new job before his health insurance kicks in. Lucky or not?

This isn't to discount the idea of being prudent or prepared, just to argue that a lot of whether any particular event is "lucky" is perspective, which can always be changed based on future contingencies.

Carrie Kirby's picture

That is so true, and although your comment goes beyond what I was trying to say, perspective is really my point.

A lot of people who complain of bad luck see normal events as unlucky disasters or people treating them unfairly.

Your boss fired you because you always show up late and leave early? Not bad luck, just normal. Your car got old and died? Not bad luck, just normal.

Guest's picture

I've been thinking about this post for a week. I think you're right most of the time. A lot of good (or bad) "luck" is really just good (or bad) planning. On the other hand, there are some things that are truly just lucky or unlucky. They can be mitigated or exacerbated due to planning, but things just sometimes happen.

One of the biggest things we have absolutely no control over, but which establishes so much of our lives, is when, where, and to whom we're born. I can pretty much guarantee that anyone reading this blog was exceptionally lucky in the "birth" lottery -- we're all well enough off to have regular access to a computer, which means we're probably also all well enough off to live in a free country, have enough food, read and write arguably one of the most important languages on the planet (English)... none of these things are a given. In most times and places throughout history, this situation is not the norm. So we are all exceptionally lucky.

But when most people talk about "luck," they're talking about stuff that happens to them. This, too, has some element of chance in it. Bad "luck" is when someone in your apartment complex leaves the stove on by accident and there's a fire that destroys your apartment. Good planning can mitigate this (you have copies of your important documents in safe places, you have renter's insurance, you have family nearby to stay with), but it's still fundamentally bad luck that no amount of planning on your part could have changed.

There are also "good" luck things that you have no control over. You might be in line for the movies and find out you're the 100,000th customer and they're giving you a year's pass. Yay! That's just an example of great luck.

On the whole, I agree with you. I just think the issue's a little more complex than you make it out to be.


Guest's picture

I find that working and staying busy increases my good luck. I'm not sure why. I just shake off the bad and keep looking for the good.