The Science of Luck

What are the chances?

How to Increase Your Luck: Q&A with Frans Johansson

An interview with the best-selling author of The Click Moment.

After reading this blog post by Cal Newport, I knew I had to read The Click Moment: Seizing Opportunity in an Unpredictable World. Although Frans Johansson reportedly only had $2.45 to his name when his first book, The Medici Effect, was published, that book became a business best-seller, and Johansson is now a highly sought-after speaker and consultant.

Whenever I interview an author, I’m struck at how much the writer reminds me of a personified version of the book. Johansson was a generous, insightful storytelling machine—just what you’d expect from The Click Momentwhich is why I’m breaking up the interview with Frans into two parts. I spoke with Frans from his home in New York about the role that luck plays in our lives.

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Q: Do you think people underestimate the impact that luck has in their daily lives?

Johansson: One of the things that I run across over and over again is this interesting idea of how people individually think about randomness and unexpectedness. We often forget exactly how we ended up in the place we’re in.

I once asked someone, “How do you become a professor at Harvard business school?”

He [said], “Well, here’s what you need to do. There are a number of things you need to do to set yourself up for that.”

And then I asked, “Well, how did you become a professor here?”

“Oh, well, in my case, I was invited in to teach for a couple of days, and that lead to another thing, and now I’m here. But I’m the exception.”

But everyone’s the exception when you dig into it. Over and over again, it turns out that when you look at how people ended up in the place they ended up in, serendipity and the unexpected plays a huge role in that. But when we try to explain this or take on a mentor role and provide structure for somebody else, we’ve forgotten all of that.

 

How does that affect us?

Interestingly enough, we forget that when we try to plan our own lives. Somebody who has some level of success, whether a scientist or an author, or an entrepreneur, will attest to whatever it was that set them apart was something unexpected, something that they never really saw. But over time, you find a direction and storyline for it. I believe that humans have an instinct for this.

 

But you can’t plan every aspect of your life.

Think about the single most important decision in our lives—whoever you’re going to end up with. Then, in fact, we want and invite chance. Almost everything else, we think we can sort of structure and predict some plans. I think one of the reasons we leave it up for chance is that it’s too important to put in an Excel spreadsheet. I think it’s a very interesting distinction.

 

What is one way we can increase the “click moments” in our lives?

Intersectional thinking. That just means that instead of trying to predict what’s going to be, or where you’re going to get your most brilliant insight, you almost have to do the opposite. It’s hard to do, because we’re always looking for the storyline, we’re always looking for an explanation. But if you try to connect with people who are operating in another field, industry, discipline or culture, and you search for connections, you will be consistently surprised.

If you want to pick up some magazines before you get on a flight, for instance, well make one or two of those magazines ones you never, ever read. You’re not interested in it, but you do so with the specific intent of trying to connect something in there with what it is that you’re doing. You’ll actually be very surprised.

We work with companies all over the world. We try to take their resources, their skill sets, their relationships and connect it with completely unexpected fields, cultures, so on, and the ideas that come out of that tend to be unexpected and serendipitous, tend to not be something that you would arrive at by using logic.

 

One of my favorite insights in The Click Moment is how logic can fail us.

If you try to come up with something that could make you stand apart, be groundbreaking, or that has the potential of being successful, the most inefficient thing you can do is use logic to get there. You will over and over again arrive at the same place that others are at, by the very nature of logic, since you don’t have a monopoly on logic. Take your eyes off the ball, allow yourself to do something else. You almost have to schedule it—in fact, I do, I schedule it.

 

How do you schedule randomness?

Even when I’m busy, I still have to find the time to go in a direction that I didn’t expect. Take a meeting with somebody that I don’t know what it’s going to lead to. I have an hour set aside for calls, to talk about whatever they want to talk about. There’s no pre-qualifier, just conversation. What could that lead to? Sometimes, nothing, it’s just an interesting conversation. Sometimes the conversation isn’t even interesting.

But something phenomenal can—and has—come out of it.

 

Karla Starr is a writer, member of the National Book Critics Circle, former books editor of Willamette Week, and former books columnist for Seattle Weekly.

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