Some guys seem to have all the luck. A perfect career, a perfect partner, a perfect life. When they’re not sitting next to a book publisher on a flight, they’re discovering a vintage Burberry trench in the thrift store around the corner from your apartment. It’s unbelievable. It’s annoying.
Their luck seems random—and these days, thanks to social media, it seems like everybody’s getting lucky but you. But if you’re sitting around waiting for luck to hit you like a benevolent lightning bolt, you’re thinking about it all wrong. Nobody’s just born #blessed.
That’s because luck isn’t something that happens to you; it’s something that happens because of you. At least that’s what Tina Seelig (a professor of entrepreneurship at Stanford and best-selling author who's written seventeen books at the time of this writing) would tell you. Luck is something you can create for yourself and learn to control, she says, which means that you can actually teach yourself to get luckier. Make a few tweaks to the way you approach opportunities that arise in your daily life and you too can become one of the savvy and brave people capable of making their own lucky breaks happen.
Here, she gives you the tools to do exactly that, and shares a few of the secrets that she’s used to unleash good fortune on her everyday life. We wish you luck in applying them to your own.
GQ: You’ve written that there is a “physics” to luck, since all of life is a matter of cause and effect. What do you mean by that?
Tina Seelig: We live in a world where every single choice you make has consequences. Many people don’t pay attention to the little things they do that have an enormous impact. If you don’t actually think about the consequences, you’re missing a huge opportunity—and they're often things you don’t even notice you missed. You see other people having opportunities that you don’t, and you can feel like, “Wow, how come everybody else has all the luck?” But if you look carefully there are all these little things they have done that end up essentially attracting luck their way.
So what are those behaviors you can practice to attract luck?
One is showing appreciation. It doesn’t take very much time and yet it has a huge impact on people. Most people are not appropriately appreciative of what other people do for them, and they take it for granted. Especially when you’re a kid, or a young person, and people have been doing things for you your whole life, you just assume that’s the way the world works. Showing appreciation results in a tremendous outpouring of other opportunities.
The other is taking risks. Go up and say hello to somebody you don’t know. Try a sport you haven’t tried. Go somewhere you haven’t gone before. Each of these opens up the door to possibilities. Think about people who are well-known athletes. If they had never tried that sport, they never would have known that that was their gift.
The other thing that I talk about is embracing crazy ideas. There are so many things around us that on the surface look unusual or crazy, but if you’re willing to embrace them? It’s a little like improv, saying, “Yes, and…” Being able to look at everything that comes to you as a gift and embracing it, as opposed to reacting quickly with a no or with a negative response.
How do you make yourself more willing to open up to risk?
Tiny little experiments. One of my favorite concepts comes from my colleague Alberto Savoia [an Innovation Agitator Emeritus at Google, and Innovation Lecturer at Stanford], who actually has a book coming out about doing little tiny experiments. For example, if I get a chess board, I don’t immediately sign up for the biggest tournament in my neighborhood—I just play a game of chess. You don’t instantly sign up for the World Series the first time you pick up a baseball bat. The key is to do something little that gives you a little experience.
That seems like a way to get away from the paralysis of choice: putting yourself in motion by saying I’m going to do this thing—even if it’s little—to move myself in the direction of action.
Right. I also think it’s really important to distinguish between fortune, chance and luck. People don’t distinguish between them.
Fortune is things that are outside of your control, things that happen to you. I’m fortunate to be raised by a loving family. I’m fortunate to be born in this place and time. I’m fortunate to have blue eyes. Chance is something you have to do; I have to take a chance. It requires action on your part in the moment. Buy a lottery ticket. Ask someone on a date. Apply to a job. Luck is something where you have even more agency. You make your own luck by identifying and developing opportunities in advance.
People conflate all three of those things and as a result, they think things are much more random than they are.
So the harder you work to prepare yourself to find and seize opportunities, the luckier you get.
Hard work matters, but it’s also really important to think about resilience. It makes you luckier. If you can extract the learnings from mistakes and failures, you’re going to move forward much more quickly.
I can think of very specific people who have one failure and then they don’t want to try anything else. Whereas other people go, “Okay, I have a failure, I learned a lot, and now I’m going to go do something different.” You practice being resilient. You get better at recovering from failure.
You also mentioned changing your relationship to ideas, or embracing something that sounds unusual or crazy. Are there specific ways that you’d recommend to go about finding the good, even in bad ideas?
Take a class in improv. The major rule of improv is that you accept whatever is given to you. If someone gives you an idea that doesn’t, on the surface, make any sense, you have to go with it. That idea of embracing ideas even [if] on the surface they seem crazy is a really powerful thing. It’s really hard to do.
I write and teach a lot about brainstorming. Someone has an idea and you think it’s a really stupid idea—it’s really hard not to say "that won’t work" or "that’s a stupid idea." But it’s incredibly powerful if you can defer judgment for enough time so you can explore. You’re not investing in it, you’re just going to take a few minutes to see how this might work.
That can be dangerous, though, for a generation that was constantly told to follow its passion. You can follow a bad idea too far if you’re passionate about it. It sounds to me like you’re saying that “follow your passion” is a good message—but an incomplete one.
People tell you to follow your passion, that’s totally cop-out advice. It’s like saying “think outside the box.” Or even “fortune favors the prepared mind.” These things that people say don’t have enough meat on the bone to give you anything to do with it. I am a firm believer that passion follows engagement, not the other way around. The more engaged you are in something, the more passionate you become with it. In fact, there’s evidence the more time you spend with a person, the more you like them.
Let’s imagine it was my job to manage the sewer system of San Francisco. I don’t know anything about that. But I could get passionate about that. It’s super important. We would all be pretty miserable if it wasn’t working. I’m going to guess there are a lot of nuances, and technology and challenges and opportunities for improvement. You could pick anything.
You have to look at your passions, as well as your skills, as well as the market. If I’m passionate about something, and I’m not very good at it—let’s say I love music, but I can’t carry a tune. I could be a good fan. I could play music, go to concerts, maybe be the manager of a band. But if I’m good at it and there’s a market for it, then that’s a job. You want an overlap in your passion, skills and market, and that’s where your sweet spot is.
Now, you can always create a market. Let’s say I’m an artist, and nobody has ever heard of my technique. I can create a market if I’m talented and passionate. But a lot of people don’t want to do that.
So by saying, “How can I engage with something that increases my passion in areas where I can also grow skills that I’m seeing are valuable in the market?"—that would help you build success instead of waiting for it to be given to you.
The point is having a sense of responsibility and agency. In a job, you might have responsibility but no authority. But in your own life, you have the responsibility and authority to do things to craft the life you want to live. Most of us choose where we’re going to live, who we’re going to spend time with, what kind of job we’re going to have. I think that so many people limit themselves, they make a box around themselves that’s much smaller than it needs to be. Then you read stories about people who go off and live in interesting places and you say, “How did you do it?” and they say, “I just did it.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.