Introduction

When researchers “asked creative persons what explains their success, one of the most frequent answers – perhaps the most frequent one – was that they were lucky” (Csikszentmihalyi 46). Creativity theorists like Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi agree that “luck is without doubt an important ingredient in creative discoveries” (46). James H. Austin, a neurologist, likens luck to “serendipity,” a word that originally meant to “discover things, by accident and sagacity, while hunting for something else.” Austin’s exploration of serendipity examines four forms of luck: “accidental good luck; energetic, generalized motor activities in the right territory; a special kind of receptivity and discernment unique to the recipient; and a probing action with a distinctive personal flavor which ‘courts Dame Fortune’” (front flap). While some people resent the idea that luck exists at all, Twyla Tharp, one of America’s greatest choreographers, says “Get over it. This is how the world works. In creative endeavors, luck is a skill” (120).

This essay explores luck. It will begin with four examples of luck stemming from stories of people being in the right place at the right time and two who actually made discoveries by mistake. It will conclude with four techniques that Tharp claims will help convert luck into a more common, everyday creative experience.

Being in the Right Place at the Right Time

Csikszentmihalyi argues that lucky people are in the right place in the right time. Here are four examples. First, Max Planck and Niels Bohr first exposed graduate students to quantum theory in the late 1920s and 1930s. Several went on to apply “quantum mechanics to chemistry, to biology, to astrophysics, to electrodynamics. Some of them, like Linus Pauling, John Bardeen, Manfred Eigen, Subrahmanyan

Influential people and ideas frequently cross our paths at key junctures in our lives. A second example is of Sigmund Freud. He was highly influenced by the concept of psychodynamics presented by German physiologist Ernst Wilhem von Brücke. Brücke was Freud’s supervisor when Sigmund was a promising, first-year medical student at the University of Vienna. Brücke saw the living organism as a dynamic system to which laws of chemistry and physics apply; this was a radical view in the 1870s. His psychodynamics was, however, the foundation to Freud's dynamic psychology of the mind and its relation to the unconscious.

Lucky people are ready to take advantage of opportunities. A third example happened in the 1940s. Increased numbers of American women were accepted into science programs in graduate schools. They were given fellowships and “special attention from supervisors” (Csikszentmihalyi 46). They were in the right place at the right time because there were “few male students left to compete against” (46); most had gone off to war. These women became successful scientists because they took advantage of the timely opportunities presented them that would not likely have been there had there not been a war.

A fourth more recent example demonstrates how helping others with our genius may bring unique gifts. In 1972, Richard Nixon visited the South Pacific. He came down with a case of phlebitis (an inflammation of the wall of a vein). An Indian man was summoned to give the president a special hot treatment. Nixon supposedly got up after the treatment, dressed with a suit and tie, and went to his next meeting. Nixon was so happy with his treatment that he gave the man an open invitation to come and live in the United States. The man – Bikram Choudhury – moved to Hollywood, California, where he established a Bikram Yoga franchise. It now has hundreds of studios and thousands of students around the world. Bikram was in the right place at the right time and as a result was given the opportunity to bring his form of hot yoga from India to the United States.

What all four examples have in common is that the beneficiaries of good luck “show up,” are driven by what they were most passionate about, and take risks. According to Austin, serendipity (or luck) is the direct “result of accident (see examples below), sagacity, or general exploratory behavior” (71). Like “explorers, pioneers, and mountain climbers,” Austin argues that beneficiaries may not realize at the time the full implications of the “exciting chain of contingencies” apart from the “stimulation of the search itself” (65). “Rewards,” he claims, “come more as an afterthought. In the risking, he is most alert, most alive; in the seeking, he has found (what he’s looking for). He needs to take the chance” (65). There, in the field of seekers’ innate curiosity, seeds of opportunity are planted and fertilized by watchful benefactors.

Mistakes

My grandfather used to say that he made more money by mistake than he did on purpose. This is true, too, of the celebrated accidents of Charles Goodyear and W.K. Kellogg. Goodyear walked “into a general store in 1839, accidentally spills his concoction of gum and sulphur onto a sizzling potbelly stove, and discovers that instead of melting like molasses the compound chars like leather, leaving a dry, springy material that keeps its flexibility at almost any temperature” (Tharp 121). His discovery of vulcanized rubber led to the vulcanization process used by every tire manufacturer today.

W.K. Kellogg was asked by his brother Dr. John Harvey Kellogg to discover a more easily digestible substitute for bread. W.K. supposedly experimented a great deal, trying to invent a new type of bread. One night in 1894, he inadvertently left out a batch of boiled wheat on the counter. The next day, when he scraped up the dried wheat, it flaked. This accident led to the invention of Kellogg’s Toasted Corn Flakes, which changed the way Americans eat breakfast, launched a multi-million dollar cereal industry, and made Kellogg one of the richest men in the world.

With his money, he established the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in 1930 to help children in securing healthy futures. In 1935, the Kellogg Foundation spent $2 million to build new consolidated schools across south central Michigan. Delton Kellogg was one such school funded with money made from his mistake. Delton Kellogg is the K-12 school that my father, brothers and I attended. My family and I are direct beneficiaries of Kellogg’s mistake.

Preparedness

Tharp argues that preparation is what converts luck into a skill and not just a happenstance occurrence. Tharp recommends four techniques. The first is what Tharp calls “working with the best” (137) or “finding great partners” (138). “If it’s true that who you are now and who you will be in five years depend on what books you read and which people you meet, then you need to think more aggressively about those you invite into your creative life” (137). You can do this by reading great books and seeking out high-level collaborators. Personally, I have done this four times in the past six years, seeking creative partnerships with best-selling authors. As a result, I have co-authored books and on-line classes with each of them.

In turn, these partnerships have led to more good luck. For instance, several years ago, I was asked by one of these co-authors to write a series of tips for an online newsletter on relationships. The newsletter is hosted by SelfGrowth.com, a leading provider of self-growth resources with over 900,000 subscribers. One day, I got an idea for an electronic newsletter on “creativity and genius.” I called the founder of SelfGrowth.com: David Riklan. While the idea was not a good fit for him, he told me of another project that he was involved with. David was looking for 101 articles written by experts in the medical and health fields to put into a book entitled 101 Great Ways to Improve Your Health. I liked the idea of collaborating with 100 other experts. So, I wrote and submitted a fun article entitled “Happy Practices,” which was accepted. The book was launched in September 2007. I have thoroughly enjoyed being a contributing author, expanding my writings into the health field, receiving great feedback from people benefiting from articles (beneficiaries), and making money from book sales.

The second luck technique involves being generous. “Generosity is luck going in the opposite direction, away from you. If you’re generous to someone, if you do something to help him out, you are in effect making him lucky. It’s like inviting yourself into a community of good fortune” (136). This is similar to the 10% tithing rule taught in many churches and the main theme of former President Bill Clinton’s recent and timely book: Giving.

Third: research lucky people. Luck is attracted to those who “have destiny falling habitually into their laps” (137). Instead of giving prescriptive advice, Tharp recommends that investigators ask questions like, “Who are the lucky ones? Why are they so lucky? What is it that they are doing differently than you and others?” “It isn’t dumb luck,” she claims, “if it happens repeatedly. If they’re anything like the fortunate people I know, they’re prepared, they’re always working at their craft, they’re alert, they involve their friends in their work, and they tend to make others feel lucky to be around them” (137).

Further research will compare lucky people who generate luck by being benefactors (being generous) compared with those who are beneficiaries (attract generosity). According to Tharp, the later, like dance stars, “have a gift for pulling the world into them; they draw people’s attention through their beauty, talent, charisma, and wiles” (136). Further research into strengths and weaknesses of benefactors and beneficiaries (i.e., what makes them lucky) will shed light on similarities and differences as well as the relationship between these two groups.

A fourth technique is to work your craft. In the case of Charles Goodyear’s mistake, Goodyear himself claimed that the hot stove accident worked for him because he was “prepared to draw an inference.” He “applied himself most perseveringly to the subject” (121). In W.K. Kellogg’s mistake, Kellogg experimented at great length with many bread recipes long before the loaf of boiled wheat he left out. Tharp likens this technique to one of the greatest golfers Gary Player’s declaration that “The more I practice, the luckier I get” (121).

A key aspect of working your craft is perseverance. This was important for Player, Goodyear, Kellogg, even Freud. Be present. Keep your eyes open. As Tharp advises, “The more you are in the room working, experimenting, banging away at your objective, the more luck has a chance of biting you in the nose” (121).

Conclusion

As we have seen, luck occurs by being in the right place at the right time and taking advantage of opportunities presented. Such was the case for the graduate students who expanded quantum theory to other fields, Freud who expanded his medical school supervisor’s concept of psychodynamics, American women scientists in the 1940s who were able to receive fellowships and special attention as a result of men going off to war, and Bikram Choudhury who received an invitation by Richard Nixon to come to the United States. Luck also happens by mistake as in Goodyear’s discovery of vulcanization and Kellogg’s discovery of toasted flakes.

There are at least four techniques that Tharp recommends for converting luck into a skill: 1) work with the best (or find great partners), 2) be generous, 3) research lucky people, and 4) work your craft. Do these, and like the lucky ones in the examples above, you, too, will plant seeds that churns luck into skill.

References

Austin, J. H. (1977). Chase, chance, & creativity: The lucky art of novelty. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). Creativity: flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Tharp, T. (2003). The creative habit: Learn it and use it in life. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

Copyright © 2007 Philip Johncock

Author's Bio: 

Philip Johncock (johncock.com) is an authority on grants/fundraising (4Grants.Net), authenticity, manifestation, and human potential (FunUnlimitedInc.com). He impacts tens of thousands around the world with his unique E-Certifications, E-Courses, E-Books, and creative collaborations. Philip is an award-winning author (over $6.4 million), life coach, consultant and mentor (over $1.2 billion).