The Luck Factor

February 20, 2015

Related imageIn a bit of randomness courtesy of the interwebs this week, we stumbled upon a 12-year old article (and book) by Richard Wiseman, psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire, in which he argues that being lucky is an easy skill to learn and is based on four principles:  (1) creating or spotting chance opportunities, (2) listening to intuition, (3) creating self-fulfilling prophesies by expecting to be lucky, and (4) adopting a resilient attitude to bad luck.

As luck would have it, we’ve touched upon each of those four ideas here in our ongoing discussion of the role played by luck in sports and business.

(1) In Is there a process to introduce chocolate to peanut butter? we discussed the difference between luck and serendipity and how the right environment or attitude can foster the latter:

The term serendipity was coined in the 18th-century by novelist Horace Walpole, inspired by the Persian fairy tale about three princes traveling through the land of Serendip.  They “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.”  What distinguished their “abilities” from simple luck was that they could see meaningful combinations where others did not.

(2) We once wrote that good old-fashioned intuition has its place but it’s unwise to rely only on one’s instincts to decide when to rely on one’s instincts.

As we argued in Thinking consciously, unconsciously, and semi-consciously:  the best results often come from a combination of deliberation and intuition.  Too much deliberation can become analysis paralysis; and studies show that those who rely on intuition alone tend to overestimate its effectiveness.  (They recall the times it served them well and forget the times it didn’t.

(3) In A new envisagement of the world we quoted Samuel Eliot Morison’s 1943 Pulitzer Prize biography of Columbus to illustrate how his expectations of good fortune were not only self-fulfilling but became contagious:

At the end of 1492 most men in Western Europe felt exceedingly gloomy about the future. Christian civilization appeared to be shrinking in area and dividing into hostile units as its sphere contracted. For over a century there had been no important advance in natural science and registration in the universities dwindled as the instruction they offered became increasingly jejune and lifeless. Institutions were decaying, well-meaning people were growing cynical or desperate, and many intelligent men, for want of something better to do, were endeavoring to escape the present through studying the pagan past. . . .

Yet, even as the chroniclers of Nuremberg were correcting their proofs from Koberger’s press, a Spanish caravel named Nina scudded before a winter gale into Lisbon with news of a discovery that was to give old Europe another chance. In a few years we find the mental picture completely changed. Strong monarchs are stamping out privy conspiracy and rebellion; the Church, purged and chastened by the Protestant Reformation, puts her house in order; new ideas flare up throughout Italy, France, Germany and the northern nations; faith in God revives and the human spirit is renewed. The change is complete and startling: “A new envisagement of the world has begun, and men are no longer sighing after the imaginary golden age that lay in the distant past, but speculating as to the golden age that might possibly lie in the oncoming future.”

(4) In Deadlines, decisions, and cluster luck we lamented that although our hometown club was bouncing back from some bad luck, they were running out of time:

This article in Grantlandassessed the playoff chances of all 30 MLB teams.  Our Rays were playing well but digging out from the huge hole they’d surprisingly dug for themselves before the All-Star break.  The conclusion?  If the season lasted 262 games they’d have time for the bad “cluster luck” to turn around:

(T)he Rays can trace much of their heartache to cluster luck.  I’ve written about hit clustering a couple of times this year, but here’s a quick recap:  Over the course of a week, month, or even an entire season, certain teams’ hitters will bunch their hits together better than others, while certain teams’ pitchers will scatter their hits apart better than others. The Rays have been, by far, the least lucky team in baseball when it comes to hit clustering.  As of Friday’s FiveThirtyEight piece, the Rays had lost a staggering 54 runs simply through poor hit-clustering luck, a full 20 runs worse than the next-unluckiest team, the Astros.  As Peta noted on Twitter, the Rays have turned double plays on less than 5 percent of the baserunners they’ve allowed, an abnormally low number that’s also the worst in baseball.  Some of that is due to defensive slippage, as Ben Zobrist and especially Yunel Escobar are seeing their range start to tail off as they age.  But most of it is likely a giant fluke.

Cluster luck also very likely explains their torrid streak since that article was published.  One of the things baseball fans like to point out about their sport is that the length of the season tends to be a great leveler of performance.  In this case, there is just too little time for the reversion to mean to accomplish a miracle (for Ray’s fans, including some of us.)

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