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.

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.

"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.

To boost your self-esteem, write about chapters of your life

If you're lacking confidence and feel like you could benefit from an ego boost, try writing your life story.

Personal Growth

In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Ashes of cat named Pikachu to be launched into space

A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.

GoFundMe/Steve Munt
Culture & Religion
  • Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
  • If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
  • It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
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