To get lucky, think positive

This story was first published in The Straits Times on May 26, 2013

Veteran banker Wee Cho Yaw said that the late former deputy prime minister Goh Keng Swee once told him that it is better to be born lucky than to be smart.

It is a sentiment most of us would share with Dr Goh; having luck on our side can help us breeze through life.

As a reporter, I have met plenty of smart and hardworking people, but while brain-power and sheer hard work play an important role in their careers, it would appear that luck is the big arbitrator in how their lives pan out.

A good example would be Mr Wee himself. As he noted when sharing Dr Goh's observation with shareholders of United Overseas Bank (UOB) at its annual general meeting last month, he had been "born lucky".

UOB may not be where it is today without Mr Wee's luck. His family had been UOB's biggest shareholder, but when he became its chairman in 1974, the bank only had assets of $2.8 billion with operations mainly in Singapore and Malaysia.

During his long tenure as UOB boss, he expanded its assets almost 100-fold to $253 billion, acquiring four banks in Singapore, another two each in Thailand and Indonesia, and one in the Philippines.

Investors, lucky enough to share the journey with him, have prospered, as the bank grew from a $320 million yearling to a $35 billion behemoth.

Still, there is one question that needs to be answered: Why are some people lucky all the time, while others are not?

Studies have shown that lucky people enjoy certain common traits - thinking positively, seizing "chance opportunities", and adopting a resilient attitude when they encounter a setback.

Open your mind

Last year, when best-selling author Michael Lewis gave a speech at his alma mater Princeton University, he told the new graduates about the important role luck had played in his life.

He had started as a fresh Princeton graduate 30 years ago without the faintest idea what he would do with his life and certainly no inkling that he would make it big as a financial writer, penning best-sellers such as Liar's Poker and Moneyball.

He spent a lot of time going to parties. At one, he was seated next to the wife of a big-shot Wall Street banker who was so impressed with him that she "more or less forced" her husband to give him a job.

Lesson: Lucky people try hard to add variety to their lives - talking to different people, breaking routines and being open to new experiences. In doing so, they create more "chance opportunities" for themselves to get lucky.

Think out of the silo

Even Nobel Prize winners attribute their success to luck.

Sir Alexander Fleming, who won the Nobel Prize in 1945 for discovering penicillin, said he discovered the antibiotic that had saved millions of lives quite by chance.

He had left some bacteria culture plates in the open by accident when he went on holiday. On his return, he noted that a mould had developed on one of the plates with a bacteria-free circle surrounding it.

While a less observant researcher would have thrown away the plate, Dr Fleming was intrigued enough to pursue further investigations. This resulted in one of the biggest medical discoveries of all times.

Lesson: Unlucky people miss chance opportunities because they are looking for something else. Lucky people see the chance opportunities and pursue them.

Count your blessings

British psychiatrist Richard Wiseman, who spent 10 years studying the attitudes of 1,000 people, noted that our fortunes seem tied to our frame of mind.

While lucky people think that bad luck is temporary, unlucky people believe they are doomed to more bad luck.

One person in his study had turned up with his leg in a plaster cast after falling down a flight of stairs. But rather than blame bad luck for his accident, he considered himself lucky that he had not broken his neck.

It led Dr Wiseman to observe that lucky people look to the future and do not dwell on mistakes which may have caused the predicament they are facing. Lucky people also view any setback as temporary.

Lesson: Lucky people have a positive attitude, and lead happier lives.

Finally, there is a friendly word of advice from Mr Lewis to lucky people worth highlighting. He said: "With luck comes obligation. You owe a debt, and not just to your Gods. You owe a debt to the unlucky."

So the next time, you meet someone down on his luck, try to give him a helping hand. Everyone deserves a lucky break.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on May 26, 2013

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