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On Being Lucky

Professor Richard Wiseman wrote a fascinating BBC article on being lucky:

I gave both lucky and unlucky people a newspaper, and asked them to look through it and tell me how many photographs were inside. I had secretly placed a large message halfway through the newspaper saying: “Tell the experimenter you have seen this and win ?250.” This message took up half of the page and was written in type that was more than two 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.

Unlucky people are generally more tense than lucky people, and this anxiety disrupts their ability to notice the unexpected. As a result, they miss opportunities because they are too focused on looking for something else. They go to parties intent on finding their perfect partner and so miss opportunities to make good friends. They look through newspapers determined to find certain types of job advertisements and miss other types of jobs.

This is interesting stuff, but here are a few caveats: First, the experiment seemed to test visual observation skills more than anything else. I’d like to see the results replicated in an experiment not so dependent on visual stimuli. Second, in some cases this “tunnel vision” might actually lead to more success in endeavors. I think the subject here is not so much luck but goal flexibility. Some people just are unable or unwilling to adjust goals or direction even if they perceive new opportunity. It may be the result of an unwillingness to start out refresh, fear of assuming additional risk or quite frankly an unwillingness to view future benefits as outweighing the benefits of the status quo. As for me, I take pride in spotting opportunity quickly, although quite often I am not in a position to take advantage of it.

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