I’m a bit obsessed with the topic of luck—how we can lay the groundwork for it, how we stumble blindly into it, how we fail to recognize the role it plays in our “self-made” success. There are so many factors that go into luck, but the most powerful is the role that people play.
Simply put: Opportunities flow through people. Or as entrepreneur Ben Casnocha told me in an interview: “Every opportunity is attached to a person. Opportunities do not float like clouds in the sky. They’re attached to people. If you’re looking for an opportunity — including one that has a financial payoff — you’re really looking for a person.”
I recently picked up a text from the ‘70s called How to Get Lucky by Max Gunther in which he recounts 13 techniques to increase your luck. They’re not all rocket science, but the book has its moments. My favorite bit is on the importance of “finding the fast flow” and how Lauren Bacall got lucky.
Here’s Gunther on the genesis of Bacall’s first big break:
The commandment of the Second Technique is: Go where events flow fastest. Surround yourself with a churning mass of people and things happening.
[Bacall’s] first couple of years in New York were attended by almost continuous bad luck, according to her autobiography, “By Myself.” She got bit parts in plays that promptly folded, landed modeling jobs that turned out badly for random reasons. [But] she did not permit her string of bad luck to discourage her. Instead of becoming depressed and inactive – which bad luck can do to people when they believe it is caused by their own flaws – she kept herself oriented to the fast flow. [Bacall] got busily, almost frantically involved in war-effort work such as the Stage Door Canteen; in part-time jobs such as ushering at theaters; in social events, dates, parties, and picnics. She made herself the center of a howling whirlwind of people.
She could not know which of those people would be the conduit through which her break would flow. As it turned out, that destiny-marked person was an obscure English writer named Timothy Brooke... One night they went to a nightclub named Tony’s. While there, Brooke introduced her to a casual acquaintance of his, a man named Nicolas de Gunzburg. She did not know it at the time, but this was the first link of a long chain of circumstances leading to her big break.
De Gunzburg was an editor of Harper’s Bazaar. Through him, the lucky young actress got to know Diana Vreeland, the magazine’s fashion editor. Vreeland gave her some modeling assignments. One arresting full-page shot caught the attention of a Hollywood producer, Howard Hawks. Lauren Bacall’s movie career was launched.
She was a woman of great grace, beauty, and talent. Those attributes played a necessary part in her climb. She had to have them so that she could take advantage of the big break when it came. But she also had to have the break itself. If she had not gone out of her way to find the fast flow, and if she had not met that obscure British writer as a result, the name Lauren Bacall would mean nothing to us today.
Gunther goes on to describe researcher Stanley Milgram’s famous “small world experiment” from the ‘60s—the inspiration for the expression “six degrees of separation”—to show why meeting even a handful of new people can substantially increase your luck factor:
Dr. Stanley Milgram was interested in what psychologists call the “small-world phenomenon” – the often astonishing way in which people’s networks of weak links overlap. You meet a total stranger on an airplane, strike up a conversation, and discover, to your amazement, that you both know the same person. “Yes, it’s a small world!” you agree.
In considering networks of person-to-person contacts, Dr. Milgram included both strong and weak links. But he excluded the very tenuous contacts such as a nodding acquaintanceship with a supermarket cashier. [Milgram] was interested only in contacts in which there was “some meaningful, personal interaction”; and he defined those as contacts with people you know on a first-name basis… but would not classify as close friends or family.
Dr. Milgram picked a “target person” at random: a woman who lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and was married to a divinity student. Then he picked a small group of “starting persons” in Wichita, Kansas. Wichita was chosen at random, and so were the so-called starting persons. Each starting person got a letter from Dr. Milgram. It said, in effect:
This is a study of the “small-world phenomenon.” Enclosed is a document addressed to a lady living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. If you know this lady on a first-name basis, please see that it gets to her. If you don’t know her, please pass it along to somebody whom you know on a first-name basis and who, in your judgment, might know her.
The object of this odd exercise was, of course, to see how long a chain of weak links would be needed to get back to the target person. Dr. Milgram asked people to guess how long the shortest chain would be. Most thought it would be one hundred links or more.
To Dr. Milgram’s own astonishment, one chain completed itself in three links. A farmer in Wichita – one of the original “starting persons” – passed the document along to a minister friend. That man sent it to a minister he knew in Cambridge. The Cambridge minister knew the target woman, and the chain was finished.
Of the chains that were completed, the longest had ten links, and the median number was five. A startling result. Yet it becomes less startling when you look at the mathematics of it. Let’s suppose you have first-name contacts – strong and weak links – with three hundred people. Let’s further suppose that each of them has an average of three hundred links. This means that your secondary links-friend-of-a-friend-would total some ninety thousand people. And your tertiary links-friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend-would total twenty-seven million.
With numbers like that, it is not surprising that the median chain in Dr. Milgram’s experiment had only five links. By getting to know only three hundred people, you become a member of an enormous network of acquaintanceship. But is it really that enormous? Are you really linked in a meaningful way with those twenty-seven million tertiary contacts? Yes, indeed you are. Luck flows along linked chains of people until it hits targets, just as Dr. Milgram’s document did. The flow very often begins with a friend-of-a-friend.
Let’s suppose you are bored, lonesome, stagnating and in need of a life-changing love affair to get your engine tuned up again. You have a weak link with a man named A, a fellow member of a local political action group. One night A’s friend B, whom you don’t know gives a party. A, discovering that you are at loose ends that night, asks B if it’s all right to bring you along. B says sure, as long as you contribute a bottle. Another guest is B’s friend C, known to neither you nor A. This C, a tertiary link in your network, is the life-changing person you have been waiting for.
That is how luck happens.
With the advent of social media and websites like LinkedIn and Facebook, you might think that the world has gotten smaller since Milgram’s experiment. In fact, the data scientists at Facebook recently conducted a similar small-world experiment and got results that were nearly identical to Milgram’s.
But that doesn’t mean that everyone is connected by six degrees of separation—or 7, which is what the actual median number is. Some people still remain relatively isolated, and some have significantly more connections.
That’s why making a point of putting yourself in the fast flow matters. So much so, in fact, that a recent study showed that 50% of people’s predicted difference in career success hinges on whether you are part of a large, open network or a small, closed network.
Not only is it important to regularly meet new people, it’s also incredibly important to meet people who are not like you. That is, people who work in different industries, come from different backgrounds, or have different areas of expertise.
Whether it’s in your career, in love, or in life, opportunities flow through people. If you want to increase your luck, start putting yourself in harm’s way.