Photo: Amy Reed
In 1993, Joan Ginther won a $5.4 million Texas Lotto jackpot. And this was just the start.
More than a decade later, Ginther walked home with another multi-million dollar payday in 2006. She did it again in 2008, and once more in 2010. Her combined winnings? More than $20 million. Odds of her winning the fourth multi-million dollar jackpot? One in 18 septillion.
For scale, a septillion is a one followed by 24 zeroes. The universe is estimated to contain up to one septillion stars, and if you add up each grain of sand on Earth, you’re looking at a number less than that. It’s reasonable to conclude that, statistically, it shouldn’t have happened.
How did Ginther do it?
No one knows for sure. She refuses to talk about it. For all we know, she could have cheated or it could have been pure good fortune. The evidence, however, suggests another possibility.
Ginther has a Ph.D. in Statistics from Stanford University, and records show that she purchased upwards of 100,000 lottery tickets worth between $2.5 million to $3.3 million.
Good fortune could very well explain her first jackpot, but based on these two facts alone, it’s very likely that Ginther combined the randomness of her first win with the knowledge from her profession to significantly sway the odds of success in her favor.
There’s always more to a story, especially an incomplete one as in the case of Joan Ginther. That said, the generally accepted narrative provides an important analogy for how we can all design a lucky life by:
- Maximizing serendipity to uncover opportunity
- Recognizing the key variables of significance
- Building systems that have a bias towards action
We have more control over the direction of our lives than we think. We just have to realize it.
Maximize serendipity to uncover opportunity
Serendipity is most simply defined as a happy accident. It’s something that occurs by chance and results in a positive outcome. By definition, it would be reasonable to conclude that we won’t find it just because we go looking for it. There is truth to that, but only if you believe it.
Richard Wiseman is an experimental psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire in England, and his team has conducted some fascinating research on the concept of luck.
One of their most striking findings is that the expectation of luck significantly influences the degree to which we experience good and bad luck. This means that if we categorize people by whether they consider themselves to be lucky or unlucky, we find that there’s a difference between how each group responds to similar experiences.
Lucky people not only fulfill their prophecy by being more attentive to opportunities that lead to serendipitous experiences, but they’re also more likely to see misfortune in a positive light.
Given that they believe it to be there, lucky people are proactive in seeking opportunity around them. Often, they find it. Sometimes, when it’s there, but at other times, even if it isn’t obviously so. They look beyond the familiar horizons and into the details that others cease to consider.
It might sound a little preachy, but there’s a good reason to believe that it’s true.
Our brains have an incredible capacity to forge tangible results out of a mindset. When we build a habit in a particular way of thought, we begin to train our brain to see the world through that lens. In this instance, if you’re looking for ways to be lucky, you’re strengthening the neurons that refine your awareness in the relevant domains.
We all experience things subjectively. What we sense and what we feel mingles with our unique memories to present a view of the world that’s more an approximation than it is a reality. It means that there’s wiggle room to reframe details.
For people who consider themselves lucky, the result is often opportunity. And nurturing a mindset where you’re constantly looking for it is the first step in maximizing serendipity.
Recognize the key variables of significance
Finding opportunity is one thing, but directing that opportunity into a favorable outcome is an entirely different ballgame. The world is an infinitely complex place. It’s made up of a combination of billions of different variables that interact to produce each component of what we see as reality. Navigating through this complexity and coming out on top isn’t easy.
Let’s look back at the story of Joan Ginther to better understand how we can reduce the role of chance and uncertainty in a noisy world by recognizing variables of significance.
By design, a lottery offers to charge a relatively small price for a shot at a disproportionately large reward. The only catch is that it does so with an extremely large pool of people. As this pool grows, the probability of tasting that reward goes down for each individual. In fact, most lotteries, for most people, are a complete and utter waste of money.
That, of course, wasn’t the case for Ginther. If we believe the popular narrative, she used her background in statistics to understand how the lottery system in Texas worked and then developed an algorithm for buying tickets to sway the odds disproportionately in her favor.
Her aim wasn’t to eliminate the role of chance. If she could, she might have tried, but often, that isn’t possible. Instead, she broke down the process and identified few critical things she could control and relentlessly worked to manipulate them to increase her likelihood of winning.
She could very well not have won the sums she did doing exactly the same thing. In a way, she was still lucky. The beauty of statistics, however, is that over a large sample size, if you consistently work the odds in your favor, you’ll almost always come out on top in the long run.
The lesson here is that no matter what your goal, if you break down every component, you’ll notice that certain variables of significance disproportionately influence an outcome. That’s where your time should be focused for optimal results.
Looking at the next step on the career ladder? A new parent and you want to raise great kids?
Read books. Talk to others that have gone the same experience. Understand the main factors and allocate your resources accordingly. Don’t waste time on low-influence variables. Sure, be prepared for some degree of chance and randomness, but know that the better you’re able to identify and influence key variables, the more control you have over the outcome.
Build systems that have a bias towards action
The importance of studying where to direct focus can’t be overstated, and it hasn’t been. But it’s also critical to distinguish between knowing and doing. Seeking depth is a big part of designing a lucky life, but the application of knowledge is where the magic happens.
Doing is an art. It’s a simple feat on the surface, but it requires a delicate balance. Action without preparation leads to poor odds of success, while over preparedness can be paralyzing.
The point of adequate planning lies between covering off the knowledge that applies to all variables of significance and recognizing where the depth of knowledge begins to provide diminishing returns in value. That said, if there is a sweet spot, it has a bias toward action.
Nothing gets done without doing, and the more you do, the more likely something is to change.
Once you establish a comfortable level of preparation, the next step is designing a system based on collected information. This is where the application comes in, and it’s what provides the structure and discipline for deliberate and focused action.
Aim to specify the when, where, and how portions of a process to increase the likelihood of a follow through. Behavioral psychologists call this implementation intention, and it’s one of the most effective goal attainment strategies.
A study published in the British Journal of Health Psychology measuring the exercise habits of 248 people over a two-week period provides a concrete example of this.3
They used three subject groups. The control group was asked to measure how frequently they exercised; the motivation group was asked the same question but also encouraged to read a pamphlet on the benefits of exercise; and the intention group was asked the same things as the motivation group but also invited to write a plan for when and where they would exercise.
The results showed that 91% of those in the intention group exercised at least once a week, whereas only 38% of the control group and 35% of motivation group did the same.
This is a finding that has been replicated time and time again in different contexts. By generating a plan, we’re establishing commitment, and commitment is a lot more likely to influence behavior than abstract motivation. That’s why well-informed systems of action work.
If your loyalty to perfectionism is too high, you’ll never get moving. Do your homework, know when to stop, and then design deliberate structures to force your way forward.
All you need to know
A lot goes on in the world. For most of us, if we vanished tomorrow, beyond our immediate circle of family, friends, and community, the effect wouldn’t be too far-reaching. Earth would continue to orbit the sun, and almost everybody would get up and go to work.
There’s a tone of heaviness there, and it can make it seem like we don’t have too much influence or control in a big, noisy world. On a grand scale of things, we don’t. But that’s not the case when it comes to control over our own lives.
When it comes to our personal lives, most of us are in the driver’s seat. We just need to be aware of it and put our hands down on the steering wheel. It’s a three-step process.
- Know that you can design good fortune. It starts with a mindset of believing that serendipity is all around you; that opportunity and luck are around the corner, and you just need to keep your eyes open and wide. It fine-tunes awareness so you can see things that might otherwise be missed. It sounds preachy, but there’s a reason it works.
- Once you capture opportunity and define a rough destination, the narrative moves to absorbing information. It’s about learning as much about the process as possible. It’s about defining variables of significance that disproportionately influence the outcome and figuring out how to adjust them to sway the odds of success in your favor.
- The final piece of the puzzle is building relevant knowledge into a system for action. Identify when, where, and how you’re going to do something. To change things, you have to act. Perfectionism only paralyzes, and there comes a point where information provides diminishing returns. It’s far more important to have a bias for action.
That’s it. None of this is foolproof, and there’s no real way to completely eliminate the role of chance in our lives. The best we can do is take bits and pieces of tried and tested ideas to better make sense of things and to better influence the end outcome.
That’s what this is about, and it can be incredibly powerful. Take control of your life.
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