Photo: Peter Rad
A chance meeting might seem like a fluke, but as Ben Sherwood explains, scientific research backs up the notion that you can influence your own destiny. Step one: Smile.On a Saturday morning February 1994, Colleen Seifert, PhD, woke up early and ate her usual breakfast: half a bagel, fruit, and coffee. She walked her Russian wolfhound, Bandit, and tidied her apartment. Seifert was an assistant professor in psychology at the University of Michigan, and for six years her life had been entirely focused on a single goal: earning tenure. She was a work machine, putting in seven-day weeks and sleeping fewer than six hours each night. Even when she left the lab, her mind was consumed with academic research. "I couldn't walk into a shopping mall without feeling I should have been at work," she says. Her big indulgence was running errands on Saturday mornings.
On this Saturday morning, however, her life was about to catapult in a new direction. Seifert's first stop was Pittsfield Cleaners, a couple of blocks away from her home. It was a splendid, sunny day, she remembers; the university was on spring break, and the streets of Ann Arbor were quiet. She pulled up to the dry cleaner's drive-through window and handed over a tangle of clothes. The man at the cash register sorted through the items and held up a hot pink blouse.
"Is this a dress?" he asked.
"It's a shirt," Seifert said. "I wouldn't wear a dress that short."
The man had a handsome face, and dimples; he wore his hair in a ponytail. "If you've got it, flaunt it," he said with a smile.
Seifert was 34 years old, and it had been a long time since a man had even noticed her. Her 60-hour workweeks left neither time nor energy for taking care of herself. She was overweight and overstressed. She hadn't been on a date in more than two years. Friends had tried to fix her up, but when it came to flirting, she was "out of practice." And yet when the man asked for her phone number to include on the dry cleaning ticket, she blurted out: "So? Are you going to call me?"
He looked confused but recovered quickly. "Sure," he said. "I'll do that."
Flustered but "flushed with the daring" of what she'd said, Seifert drove off. She figured the man would never call, but it was thrilling to have done something so out of character. And then, around 7 o'clock that evening, the phone rang. It was him. He introduced himself—his name was Zeke Montalvo—and asked Seifert to go to the movies that night. She said yes. They had a good time. It turned out that Montalvo was only 25 and hadn't gone to college, but the two started dating. Then they fell in love. And six years after they met, on a cold Christmas Eve at a house by a lake, Montalvo proposed with an heirloom ring. They were married the next month.
At the most unlikely time, in the least romantic place, Seifert met the man of her dreams. It was a random event that changed her life forever. A classic chance encounter. Or was it?
Seifert's academic specialty is cognitive psychology, the science of why people think the way they do. And to understand what really happened the day she met Montalvo, she says you need to start the day before her trip to the cleaners.
That afternoon, in her office, she had received a bouquet of flowers from the chair of the psychology department. The note read, "Congratulations! Your tenure has been approved." If someone else had been in the room, she might have hugged them, but she was alone, so she simply cried with relief. After six years of single-minded obsession, her work had paid off. To celebrate, she went for a drink with a colleague that night. But even as she sat sipping her margarita, a feeling of anticlimax set in. She wondered if the achievement had been worth the sacrifice.
When Seifert awoke the next morning, everything felt different, as though a weight had been lifted. "I don't have to go to work today," she thought. Drinking coffee in her breakfast nook, she asked herself: "Now what? How do I want my life to go? How do I make something good happen?" She told herself that her future started today, and that there had to be something better. She promised herself that in 10 years, she wasn't going to be alone like this. From now on, she would celebrate important occasions with a crowd of friends, not just one colleague. All of a sudden, she had new goals, and she recognized that she would need to take specific steps to reach them. An introvert by nature, she decided to interact more with people. She would shake their hands, look them in the eye, engage in livelier conversation.
For Seifert, these weren't just idle thoughts. Through her research, she had come up with a concept she called "predictive encoding"—the anticipation of when a particular piece of knowledge is going to be useful—and it described exactly what she was doing as she sat at her kitchen table. Research has shown that most people aren't very good at recalling information—or intentions—when they need to. For instance, you know you're out of toilet paper, you go to the store to pick some up, and somehow you manage to come home without it. Or you know you want to meet someone and fall in love, but when you're out and about interacting with people, you somehow manage to come home without having connected with anyone. Though you know what you want, Seifert says, that knowledge doesn't always come to mind at the right time to guide your behavior. But if, when you're thinking about what you want, you imagine the situations in which you'll need to remember it, you're more likely to succeed. Preparing your mind for a certain behavior increases (by as much as 50 percent) the chance that you'll pull that behavior off. And that's what Seifert was attempting: to prepare—or encode into memory—her plans to change her behavior in a way that might change her future. By imagining a new role as a "people person," she was giving herself a better chance of behaving like one whenever the opportunity arose.
Of course, if anyone had told her she would go on a date that night with a man who worked at the dry cleaner, she would have thought it preposterous. Still, even if she wasn't expecting to meet Mr. Right when she pulled up to the drive-through window, she did know she wanted to engage the world differently. And she believes she met her husband because she had mentally prepared for a chance encounter. By seeding her mind with the vision of more connected and fulfilling relationships, Seifert says, she gave her mind instant access to this information when she ran into someone new. And that, in turn, helped her change her behavior and take action.
Seifert isn't alone in believing that if you prepare yourself to make the most of chance encounters, good things are waiting to happen all around you. Other experts agree that with a few simple steps, you can significantly increase the chances of meeting your soul mate, finding the right business partner, or steering your life in a new direction. That might sound unlikely or even naive, but there's real science to prove that while you can't control the randomness of life, you can definitely create your own luck.
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."
In psychological terms, lucky people tend to be more extroverted, a word whose Latin roots mean "turned outward." Typically, they're gregarious. They have the power to draw others toward them. They're adept at maintaining friendships. And they cultivate what Wiseman describes as a "strong network of luck" that helps promote opportunity in their lives.
Ultimately, Wiseman believes, the bigger your circle of acquaintances, the more opportunities you have. A typical person knows about 300 people on a first-name basis. So if you go to a party and meet someone new, he explains, you're "only two handshakes away from 300 times 300 people; that's 90,000 new possibilities for a new opportunity, just by saying hello." By the same logic, if you meet 50 new people at a conference, you're just a couple of introductions away from 4.5 million opportunities to change your life.
But handshakes aren't the only way to increase the odds of a life-changing encounter. Wiseman claims that 80 percent of the people who try to increase their serendipity are successful. It takes only a month, he says, and most people report their luck increases by an average of 40 percent. A few keys to success:
Prepare your mind. Don't leave chance encounters entirely to chance, says Colleen Seifert. Instead, try doing a little predictive encoding and get your mind ready for good things to happen. "Chance favors the prepared mind," Seifert says, quoting Louis Pasteur. If you lay the groundwork, then when something happens by chance, your memory goes right to work and "you notice it for free."
Give chance a chance. If you always pick apples in the same part of an orchard, Wiseman notes, you'll eventually run out of fruit. The same applies to luck. Pursue an active life—get out there and do things—and you'll increase the likelihood of good things happening. Go apple picking—or grocery shopping, for that matter—somewhere new. Eat your lunch on a different park bench. You never know who will be sitting next to you.
Relax. If you're anxious, stressed, or preoccupied, Wiseman believes, you probably won't notice good things waiting to happen. You'll walk right past money on the ground or miss an opportunity to speak with someone in a coffee shop. A laid-back attitude can lead to all sorts of possibilities, but you have to be ready to go with the flow.
Build your network of luck. Stay connected to the people you know, and try to meet new people. You can become more of a social magnet by paying attention to your body language. It may sound obvious, but make smiling a habit. "Remember that you are surrounded by opportunities," Wiseman writes. "It is just a case of looking in the right places and seeing what is really there."
Colleen Seifert used to think it was "inefficient to invest in people you were never going to see again." Why chat with someone on an airplane—or at the dog park, or at an academic conference—if your paths were never going to recross? But she now believes that "people are opportunities. The gift is in the interaction and the connection with another person, whether it lasts forever or not." And you never know where that gift might lead.