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How successful people make themselves luckier

The two most important days in your life are the day you are born, and the day you know why.

Unfortunately for some people, that second day never occurs. For lucky people, though, the second day—the day you know why—is often described as a personal epiphany. The most successful people have a clear idea of who they are, and a conviction about where they want to end up. They then work backwards to develop the milestones they need to hit along the way.

The epiphany moment, despite the excitement the realization can arouse, isn’t a gong-ringing moment. It intriguingly is frequently characterized by a sense of calm. Once you know the course you have set, everything else is a function of that goal.

For the past decade or so, I have been accumulating  lessons from many remarkable people, including Senator Bill Bradley, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and self-made construction magnate Linda Alvarado whose stories I tell in my new book Be Luckier in Life

There is surprisingly little analytical rigor brought to the study of luck. As I undertook the process of studying the underlying traits and characteristics that have consistently created luck for the most successful people, I began to realize there is a pattern—even a method—to the seeming randomness of luck.

Among the lessons in the book, the luckiest people:

  • Don’t simply “communicate” with others, but find ways to authentically connect with others.
  • Use the right toolkit of people skills, conceptual skills, judgement and character that helps them succeed in finding new opportunities and re-framing setbacks to their advantage.
  • Swing for the fences when a big, fat pitch of opportunity comes their way.
  • Know when to lighten up and maintain perspective.

The “luckiest” of people literally create their own luck by behaving in ways that makes them open to new possibilities and new people. These traits and behaviors are alluring, and this allure itself leads to new opportunities, which  in their abundance, provide an ever-more powerful and complex system of chances for success. It’s a virtuous circle where lucky behavior begets ever more luck.

Howard Schultz, CEO of the Starbucks coffee empire, remembers quite clearly his professional epiphany. It happened in Milan, Italy nearly 30 years ago.

“The Italians had turned the drinking of coffee into a symphony, and it felt right,” he recalls. “I felt the unexpressed demand for romance and community.” Back at home in America, Starbucks, then selling only coffee beans, mostly by mail, “was playing in the same hall, but without a string section.” And though it took many years to convince others to see what he saw then, he reminds people seeking to create more luck to stay the course.

“Vision is what they call it when others can’t see what you can,” says Schultz.

One person who reflects many of the best opportunity-creating behaviors is former presidential candidate Senator Bill Bradley. His accomplishment and achievement span so many fields that it’s hard to tell what’s most important to him. All-American basketball star at Princeton, Rhodes scholar, Olympic gold medalist, NBA champion on the New York Knicks, US senator, presidential candidate—Bill Bradley seems to have bounced from achievement to achievement, across career after career.

Look deeper, though, and you see that Bradley’s record of success all hangs together around a central belief : he was put on this planet to play a role in “big reform, and helping people where they live their lives” in such areas as education, health care and tax reform, he says. This theme has been a constant in his life, from the leadership he showed on the basketball court through his 18 years on the floor of the US Senate where he played a commanding role in legislation that removed 13 million children from poverty, expanded opportunities for education for millions more, and lowered and simplified taxes for every American.

Bill describes this sense of purpose as coming from within, not from external impulses and uses words that tellingly imply that finding his destiny was a fluid and natural process, not one fraught with conflict and tension.

“I believe in discipline. I believe in hard work leading to accomplishment. But I am talking on the deeper, spiritual, interpersonal, emotional level, of living every day to the fullest extent possible, with the joy that comes only from being in a state of unity (within) yourself. Having your external world and your internal world be joined—as opposed to separated,” he says.

Perhaps the biggest setback of Bill’s career—the time when he was most “out” of his zone—was losing the race for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2000. Bill recounts a dream he had not long afterward. In the dream, a giant is crossing a river but he suddenly begins to stumble as he realizes that he is being eaten alive by piranhas below the water’s surface. He won’t make it across the river. Just then, a boat appears, and the giant is magically shrunk to a size that allows him to flee the piranhas by climbing into the boat and sailing away to safety.

“That dream helped me go on with my life after the inflation of running for the presidency,” says Bradley. “To save your humanity you have to shrink from the inflation of that feeling of running for president, and then you save yourself.”

Today, as a successful investment banker in New York, Bradley is continuing to rack up new achievements, directing companies and advising entrepreneurs. “I’m associating myself with ideas that have a chance of changing the world if they are successful,” he says. “You have to live your life not to the drumbeat of other people’s expectations, but to the drumbeat of your inner self,” he adds.

You can follow Craig on Twitter at @cforman and check out his book Be Luckier in Life here. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com

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