Why do some people find love at the dry cleaner while others simply move on to the next errand? Why do some travelers make new business contacts on airplanes while others just hunker down to watch the in-flight movie? By definition, a chance encounter is a random event. Our actions, however, play a crucial role in the outcome. When we hear about people who manage to turn chance into opportunity, we think of them as lucky. But that explanation may be too simple.

Richard Wiseman, PhD, has spent more than a decade investigating why some people have more luck than others. A professor at the University of Hertfordshire in England, he holds Britain's only professorship in the public understanding of psychology. (That's his actual title.) His job is to study the ways in which psychological concepts become known to the general public, but he's also conducted international searches for the funniest joke and best pickup line. A former magician, he has explored the role of chance in our lives and discovered that some people really do have all the luck while others are "magnets for ill fortune."

Luck is usually defined as an unpredictable phenomenon that leads to good or bad outcomes. But after years of experiments, Wiseman disagrees. "Luck is not a magical ability or a gift from the gods," he writes in The Luck Factor, his 2003 book about the essential principles of changing your fortune. "Instead, it is a way of thinking and behaving." He insists that we have far more control over the element—and outcome—of chance in our lives than we realize. In fact, he argues that only 10 percent of life is truly random. The remaining 90 percent is "actually defined by the way you think. "

To investigate this idea, Wiseman devised an experiment for which he recruited a pair of test subjects, Martin and Brenda (their names have been changed). Martin described himself as lucky; Brenda insisted that she was not. Wiseman asked them to go, at different times, to a coffee shop near his university, ostensibly to meet someone else involved in the research project; in reality, they were going to be exposed to identical "chance" opportunities.

Of course the setup was rigged. First, Wiseman had taped a crisp £5 note to the sidewalk outside the coffee shop. Next, he'd planted actors at each of the four tables inside. One of the plants was a "millionaire"; the others were not. Each was instructed to behave in exactly the same way.

Walking up to the store, Martin immediately spotted the money on the sidewalk and picked it up. He ordered coffee and took a seat next to the millionaire. After introducing himself and offering to buy a round of coffee, Martin found himself engaged in spirited conversation with the man; soon they were exploring the possibility of doing business together.

Brenda, on the other hand, marched right past the money without noticing it. She bought her coffee and sat down next to the millionaire, but they didn't exchange a word.

Later, when asked to describe his day, Martin reported that he'd been very lucky, finding £5 and meeting an interesting businessman. Brenda's report: It was an uneventful morning.

"Same opportunities," Wiseman says. "Different lives."

So why did Martin and Brenda have such different experiences? "Lucky people create, notice, and act upon the chance opportunities in their lives," Wiseman notes. If luck means being in the right place at the right time, he adds, "being in the right place at the right time is actually all about being in the right state of mind."

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