Luck I: Finding White Swans

Quoth the Master, great in Wisdom, to the Novice: “Ye, carry with thee all thy days a cheque folded up in your wallet.  For there may be many situations in which thou shalt have need of it.”

And the Novice, of high intelligence but lesser wisdom, replied, saying unto the Master: “Of what situations dost thou speak?”  

To which the Master replied: “imagine that thou dost come upon a nice piece of land, and wish to make a down payment on it. The real estate market moveth quickly in these troubled economic times, and you may soon find your opportunity dried up like dead leaves in summer.  What would you do?”  The Master, you see, did dabble in real estate development a little, and his knowledge was deep in these matters.  

The Novice thought for a moment, saying: “But always I carry with me a credit card.  Surely this is sufficient for my purposes.”

And the Master replied: “Thou knoweth not the ways of commerce.  Thinketh thee that all dealings are conducted within feet of a machine that can read credit cards?!”

The Novice knew the ways of Traditional Rationality and Skepticism, and felt it his duty to take the opposite stance to the Master, lest he unthinkingly obey an authority figure.  Undeterred, he replied, saying unto the Master: “But always I carry with me cash. Surely this is sufficient for my purposes.”

Upon hearing this, the Master did reply, incredulously: “Would thee carry with thee always an amount of cash equal to the reasonable asking price of a down payment for a piece of land?!”   

And lo, the Novice did understand, though he could not put it into these words, that the Master did speak of a certain stance with respect to the unknown.  The swirling chaos of reality may be impossible to predict, but there are things an aspiring empirimancer can do to make it more likely that ve will have good fortune.

Verily, know that that which people call ‘luck’ is not the smile of a beneficent god, but the outcome of how some people interact with chance.  


Consider for a moment two real people, whom we will call ”Martin” and “Brenda”, that considers themselves lucky and unlucky, respectively. Both are part of the group of exceptionally lucky/unlucky people which Dr. Richard Wiseman has assembled to try and scientifically study the phenomenon of luck.

As part of the study, both people were placed in identical, fortuitous circumstances, but both handled the situation very differently. The setting: a small coffee shop, arranged so that there were four tables with a confederate (someone who knows about the experiment) sitting at each table. One of these confederates was a wealthy businessman, the kind of person that, should you happen to meet him in real life and make a good impression, could set you up with a well-paying job. All the confederates were told to act the same way for both Brenda and Martin. On the street right outside the coffee shop, the researchers placed a £5 note.

Brenda and Martin were told to go to the coffee shop at different times, and their behavior was covertly filmed. Martin noticed the money sitting on the street and picked it up. When he went into the coffee shop he sat down next to the businessman and struck up a conversation, even offering to buy him a coffee.  Brenda walked past the money, never noticing it, and sat quietly in the shop without talking to anyone.

Fortune favors the…?

There are obvious differences in Brenda and Martin’s behavior, but are they indicative of more far-reaching differences in how lucky and unlucky people live their lives? First, let’s discuss what doesn’t differentiate lucky from unlucky people. Wiseman, having assembled his initial group of subjects, tested them on two traits which could have an impact on luck: intelligence and psychic ability. Determining that intelligence wasn’t a factor was as easy as administering an intelligence test. Psychic ability was ruled out by having both lucky and unlucky people pick lottery numbers, with the result being that neither group was more successful than the other.

Wiseman further tested for differences in personality using the Five Factor Model of Personality, which you will recall breaks personality up into Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism (the acronym OCEAN makes for easy recall) . Lucky and unlucky people showed no differences in Conscientiousness or Agreeableness, but did show differences in Openness, Extraversion, and Neuroticism.  It is here that an interesting picture began to emerge.

Ultimately, Wiseman was able to break luck down into four overarching principles and twelve subprinciples, summarized here:

Principle One: Maximize the number of chance opportunities you have in life.

  subprinciple one: lucky people maintain a network of contacts with other people.

  subprinciple two: lucky people are more relaxed and less neurotic than unlucky people

  subprinciple three: lucky people introduce variety into their routines.

Principle Two: Use your intuition to make important decisions.

  subprinciple one: pay attention to your hunches.

  subprinciple two: lucky people try to make their intuition more accurate.

Principle Three: Expect good fortune.  

  subprinciple one: lucky people believe their luck will continue.

  subprinciple two: lucky people attempt to achieve their goals and persist through difficulty.

  subprinciple three: lucky people think their interactions will be successful.

Principle Four: Turn bad luck into good.

  subprinciple one: lucky people see the silver lining in bad situations.

  subprinciple two:lucky people believe that things will work out for them 

  subprinciple three: lucky people spend less time brooding over bad luck.

  subprinciple four: lucky people try to prevent further bad luck.  

I suspect that LWers will have a unique set of reactions to and problems with each of these principles, so let’s take them one at a time.  In this essay, I will examine the first two.

Facing up to randomness

First, how would you go about increasing the likelihood of positive chance encounters? Well, you could start spending more time talking to strangers and making friends with people.  Indeed, one of the important differences between unlucky and lucky people is that lucky people are more outgoing, more friendly and open in their body language (lucky people smiled and made eye contact far, far more often), and keep in touch with people they meet longer. The age-old adage ‘it’s not what you know, but who you know’ has more than a grain of truth in it, and a great way to get to know the right people is by simply getting to know more people, period. The chances of any given person being the contact you need are pretty slim, but the odds improve with every person you get to know.

This actually works on several levels. Since the complexity of the world greatly exceeds the cognitive abilities of any one person, cultivating a strong social network positions you to take advantage of the knowledge and experience of others. Even if you are so much smarter than person X that they can’t compete with you along any dimension, they may still have information you don’t, or they may know somebody who knows somebody who can help you out.

Moreover, I’m sure everyone is familiar with the experience of struggling with a problem, only to have a random conversation (with a stranger or a friend) shake loose a key insight. This can happen locally inside your own head when you have the necessary raw material laying around but haven’t seen a certain connection. In this situation you would have eventually hit upon the insight but the process has been expedited.  More valuable still is when two or more people enter a conversation that produces an insight that nobody had the necessary components to produce for themselves; I think this is part of what Matt Ridley means when he talks about ideas having sex.

So you’re doing your best to meet more people and flex your extroversion muscles. Next, you might try and be more spontaneous and random in your life. Wiseman notes that many lucky people have a strong orientation towards variety and novel experiences.  Some of them, facing an important decision like which car to buy, will do something like list their options on a piece of paper and then roll a die.

You don’t need to go quite this far; it’s also acceptable to shop different places, take different routes to work, or pick a new part of the city to explore every month. The takeaway here is that it’s difficult to have positive chance encounters if you always do the same thing.

One of my favorite examples of someone positioning themselves to benefit from chance comes from Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, when Harry and Hermione first read all the titles of the books in the library and then read all the tables of contents.  From their point of view the books in the library are a vast store of unknown information, any bit of which they might need at a given time. Since reading every single book isn’t an option, familiarizing themselves with the information in a systematic way means creating many potential sources of insight while simultaneously reducing the cost of doing future research. Hacker Eric Raymond made related point in the context of winning table-top board games:

I made chance work for me. Pay attention, because I am about to reveal why there is a large class of games (notably pick-up-and-carry games like Empire Builder, network-building games like Power Grid, and more generally games with a large variety of paths to the win condition) at which I am extremely difficult to beat. The technique is replicable.

I have a rule: when in doubt, play to maximize the breadth of your option tree. Actually, you should often choose option-maximizing moves over moves with a slightly higher immediate payoff, especially early in the game and most especially if the effect of investing in options is cumulative.

What’s the common thread between extroversion, skimming the library shelves, and beating your friends at boardgames? Certain actions and certain states of mind make it more likely you’ll benefit from white swans.

(Clever readers may be saying to themselves: “okay, but doesn’t all this also make the chances of encountering black swans higher as well?” We will address these concerns when we talk about principles three and four.)

Attitude matters

We’ve covered extraversion and openness, but the lucky people Dr. Wiseman interviewed were also more relaxed and less neurotic than the unlucky ones. This has obvious consequences for when you are trying to meet new people, but research also hints that being less anxious may make you more likely to notice things you aren’t specifically looking for. This is probably why several of Dr. Wiseman’s lucky participants remarked on how often they found money on the street, found great opportunities while listening to the radio or reading the newspaper, and in general stumbled over opportunities in places where other people simply failed to notice them.

This attitude undergirds and complements much of what I discussed in the previous section; while you are trying to maximize your pathways to victory, don’t forget that constantly worrying and mentally spinning your tires will make you less likely to see a chance opportunity.

Pump your intuition

Lucky people tend to have strong intuitions, and they have a habit of paying careful attention to them.  I’m sure you’re skeptical of this advice, as I was when I first started reading this section. Given present company I don’t think I need to reiterate all the billion ways intuition can be derailed and misleading. That said, placing intuition and rationality as orthogonal to one another is a good example of the straw vulcan of rationality. Intuitions are of course not always wrong, and in some cases may be the only source of information a person has to go off of.

Two things put a little nuance on the proposition that you should listen to your intuitions. The first is that, as far as I can tell, lucky people don’t trust their intuitions immediately and absolutely. They don’t stand at a busy intersection, blindfolded, and trust their gut to tell them when it’s safe to cross. Rather, their hunches act more like yellow traffic lights, telling them that they should proceed with caution here or do a bit more research there. In other words, it sounds to me like lucky people treat their intuitions in a pretty rational manner, as data points, to be used but not relied upon in isolation unless there is just nothing else available.

The other thing is that many lucky people take steps to sharpen their intuitions, utilizing quiet solitude or meditation. Dr. Wiseman goes into precious little detail about this, including just a few anecdotal descriptions of people’s efforts to clear their mind. The rationalist community will be familiar with more quantitative methods like predictionbook, and googling for ‘improving your intuitions’ turned up about as much garbage as you’d probably expect.  If anyone has leads to legitimate research on improving intuition, I’d be happy to add an addendum.

Suggested exercises

Throughout the book Dr. Wiseman includes exercises which are meant to help people utilize the principles uncovered in his research to become luckier. Here are the suggested exercises for the topics discussed in this post:

-To enhance your extraversion, strike up a conversation with four people you either don’t know or don’t know well. Do this each week for a month. Additionally, every week make contact with a person you haven’t spoken to in a while.

-To relax, find a quiet place and picture yourself in a beautiful, calming scene. Make sure to visualize each and every detail of the location, including whatever sounds and smells are around you. When you’ve got the scene in place, visualize the tension leaving your body in the form of a liquid flowing out of you, starting with your head. once you feel sufficiently relaxed, slowly open your eyes.

-Inject some randomness in your life by making a list of 6 new experiences. These can be anything from trying a new type of food to taking a class on a subject you’ve always been interested in.  Number them 1 to 6, roll a die, and then do whatever corresponds to the number you rolled.

To be continued…