What Lucky People Do Different

Today’s guest contributor is former Wall Street Journal and Fortune writer, Erik Calonius. Erik collaborated with Dan Ariely on Predictably Irrational and he has a new book out from Penguin Portfolio, Ten Steps Ahead: What Separates Successful Business Visionaries from the Rest of  Us.


A few years ago I was standing in the garage where Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak started Apple Computer. I had an excellent guide that autumn morning: Steve Jobs himself. He was showing me where his desk sat in the cramped space; where Woz had his workbench; where they piled the boxes of freshly built Apple I’s.

“Look at this,” he exclaimed, pointing to the far wall. In the corner was a full-page newspaper ad for the Apple I computer, circa 1980. The headline read: What Is A Personal Computer?

Today we certainly know what a personal computer is. We can thank Jobs and the Woz for that.  And thanks to Steve, we also know what an iPod is, what an iPhone is, what an iPad is–not to mention what a Mac is. Thanks, Steve.

The thing we don’t know today concerns Steve himself. Whether this icon in the black turtleneck will overcome his health problems. That question, of course, spills over into the question about Apple Corp itself–whether Apple will thrive—or even endure for long—when Steve Jobs some day leaves. There’s huge speculation about it in the stock market now, evident in the dips and swings of Apple stock over the past few years in reaction to Steve’s continuing battle against pancreatic cancer.

But there’s another other issue at play in Steve’s illness, and Jonathan, I think you raised it your recent post, Dust in the Wind. The post showed a red dumpster beneath your apartment window, where the life’s possession of elderly widows and widowers are dumped on a regular basis when they pass away.  “This is what’s left of someone’s life,” you wrote. “Not the experiences, but the stuff.” Your readers obviously understood the existential question you were raising. So did I: my mother passed a few years ago, and one of the most traumatic events of my life was filling three dumpsters to the top with her stuff following two weekends of estate sales.

Recently I stumbled upon a Stanford graduation address that answers that question surprisingly well. And it’s from Steve Jobs himself. The speech was given in 2005, less than a year after he found out he had cancer. I think that’s why Steve’s remarks were unusually candid and personal.

This is what he said:

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool that I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.  Because almost everything—all external expectations all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.  Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

That’s a blunt confession, especially delivered to an assembly of fresh-faced college graduates. But Jobs offered some prescriptive advice.

“For the past 33 years I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”

Great thought. But how do you “change something?” How do you take the image of your face in the mirror—or the sight of the dumpster down in the street—and change your own life?

Recently I came upon a fascinating study by Richard Wiseman, a psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire. Wiseman surveyed a number of people and, through a series of questionnaires and interviews, determined which of them considered themselves lucky—or unlucky. He then performed an intriguing experiment: He gave both the “lucky” and the “unlucky” people a newspaper and asked them to look through it and tell him how many photographs were inside. He found that on average the unlucky people took two minutes to count all the photographs, whereas the lucky ones determined the number in a few seconds.

How could the “lucky” people do this? Because they found a message on the second page that read, “Stop counting. There are 43 photographs in this newspaper.” So why didn’t the unlucky people see it? Because they were so intent on counting all the photographs that they missed the message. Wiseman noted,

“Unlucky people miss chance opportunities because they are too focused on looking for something else. They go to parties intent on finding their perfect partner, and so miss opportunities to make good friends. They look through the newspaper determined to find certain job advertisements and, as a result, miss other types of jobs. Lucky people are more relaxed and open, and therefore see what is there, rather than just what they are looking for.”

I think Steve Jobs would agree wholeheartedly with this. In fact, in his Stanford address he described how he dropped out of Reed College after a mere six months. After that, he said he hung around the campus, slept on the floor in a friend’s room, walked seven miles across town on Sunday nights for a good meal at the Hare Krishna Temple, and took a few classes, whatever he wanted.  It sounds like a waste—like Jobs should have been “counting the photographs” in life rather than meandering about. But as you can imagine, it isn’t true. Says Jobs:

“Reed College at the time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class and learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, and about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great.”

Here’s the kicker:

“If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, “ Jobs explained, “the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionately spaced ones. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them.”

He added,

“Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later. Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something—your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”

So that’s what Jobs means by “changing something.” Not a decision to do this or that, but an emotional choice to keep your mind open. To stop counting the “photographs.” To look around.  To open your eyes and bring real life–raw, untamed and full of promise—into your world.

When we see a dumpster full of stuff, maybe that’s the thought we need to keep in mind. Possessions, after all, are not always a comfort. Sometimes they are a cage.

Just like Rabindranath Tagore said, “If you shed tears when you miss the sun, you also miss the stars.” I think that’s kinda Buddha tried to teach us that everything is interpreted by our mind.

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