How to luck your way into incredible opportunities

Is luck a windfall of good fortune, or is it a skill you can cultivate? Janice Kaplan thinks luck works best when it's mixed with purpose.

"It’s the people who you aren’t necessarily closest to who often can do the most for you," says Janice Kaplan, author of How Luck Happens. Sociologists call this Weak Ties Theory, which describes the powerful effect random connections can have on your life. "Your very close friends, your family members tend to know the same people that you do, they know the same opportunities that you do. But it’s that next circle, that slightly wider circle that’s likely to bring in new opportunities for you," Kaplan says. This isn't about adding more friends on Facebook, making vision boards a la The Secret, or seeing if your barista has heard of any great jobs lately. Specificity is absolutely key—you have to know what you want. Then, when you have the opportunity to talk to someone in outside your circle—your hairdresser, or someone at the gym—and you mention a specific goal, you might be surprised at who or what they know that can help you out. Luck is a random phenomenon, but Kaplan insists that building your own luck circle and putting yourself in the right places will result in unexpected and fantastic opportunities. Here, she shares an example from her book about how Charlize Theron got her first break after a traumatic childhood and a series of professional failures. Janice Kaplan is the author of How Luck Happens: Using the Science of Luck to Transform Work, Love, and Life.

JANICE KAPLAN: It’s probably not a big surprise that luck is often other people; luck is created by other people helping us out, and sociologists have that wonderful term of “weak ties”, which means that it’s the people who you aren’t necessarily closest to who often can do the most for you. Your very close friends, your family members tend to know the same people that you do, they know the same opportunities that you do.

But it’s that next circle, that slightly wider circle that’s likely to bring in new opportunities for you. I’m not talking about Facebook friends here, I’m talking about having colleagues and friends of friends, who you meet, who you talk to, who you bring into your circle, and who are very likely then to help you find other opportunities.

One thing we found is that often people who cross over in different categories, in different social classes, in different economic classes—like fitness trainers or hairdressers—tend to be really interesting people for bringing luck, because they know so many different people from so many different categories.

So it may be a surprise that while you’re there trying to improve your biceps you happen to mention a job you'd like and the guy who is helping you hold the weights happens to know somebody who might be able to help. Again, what’s really important as you build those bigger circles, as you build those luck circles, is to know very specifically what you’re looking for. Because if you put out that general idea it’s not going to go anywhere, but if you can be very specific about what you’re wanting sometimes those weak ties really can lead to something very unexpected and very important.

In the book I talk about Charlize Theron, the Academy Award-winning actress, who came to America when she was about 19, and she came after a series of unfortunate events in South Africa. She had a pretty traumatic and difficult childhood growing up, including her mother murdering her father, and she went to Italy first, she wanted to be a dancer, and then her knees gave out. It’s just one piece of bad luck after another in a life, but Charlize knew what she wanted to do, and she came to America, she came to Los Angeles to give herself one last chance to put herself in the place where luck could find her.

Well, it wasn’t doing such a great job at finding her—she was in a bank, the teller wouldn’t cash a check that her mom had sent from South Africa, and she had a meltdown and a fit. Well, guess what? Somebody who was standing near her in the bank happened to be a talent agent, handed her his card, and the rest is Oscar-winning history.

Now I’m not suggesting that you should have a fit in a bank in order to become lucky, but I think some of the elements of what Charlize did actually show that we do make that luck happen: she did push on. She did decide to come to Los Angeles. She knew what she wanted. She was focused on what she wanted. And when that talent agent handed her the card she called him, and she had the talent and the tenacity to go ahead and make that happen again.

So yes, again, there is that random moment that somebody happened to be standing in the bank, but you have to think that when somebody has put so much effort into something, has put so much thought into something that there’s a good chance that if it wasn’t that bank it was going to be a different situation where somebody noticed her and somebody recognized her. You have to put yourself in the place for good things to happen, and that’s what she did.