Tina Seelig: Can We Control Our Own Luck?

Mar 1, 2019

Part 2 of the TED Radio Hour episode Luck, Fortune, And Chance.

About Tina Seelig's TED Talk

Are there things we can do to increase our luck? Through taking tiny risks, showing gratitude, and being open to new ideas, Tina Seelig says we can capture luck in our everyday lives.

About Tina Seelig

Tina Seelig teaches entrepreneurship in the Department of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University. She is also a faculty director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program, the entrepreneurship center at Stanford School of Engineering. She was trained as a neuroscientist with a PhD from Stanford School of Medicine.

Seelig runs several fellowship programs that focus on entrepreneurial leadership. She is also the author of several books, including What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20 and Insight Out.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today - ideas around luck, fortune and chance.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: When I say luck, what do you think luck is?

TINA SEELIG: People often think of luck as something that happens to them. It's actually much more nuanced because there's quite a difference between fortune, chance and luck.

RAZ: This is Tina Seelig. She teaches entrepreneurship at Stanford. And Tina has studied luck. And what makes some people luckier than others?

SEELIG: Fortune is things that are out of your control. I'm fortunate to be born in this place in time. I'm fortunate to be healthy. Chance is something - you have to do something. You have to roll the dice, or you have to buy a lottery ticket, or you have to apply for a job.

RAZ: And luck - well, here's Tina's answer from the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

SEELIG: Luck is defined as success or failure apparently caused by chance. Apparently - that's the operative word. It looks like it's chance because we rarely see all the levers that come into play to make people lucky. But I've realized by watching so long that luck is rarely a lightning strike, isolated and dramatic. It's much more like the wind blowing constantly. Sometimes it's calm, and sometimes it blows in gusts. And sometimes it comes from directions that you didn't even imagine.

RAZ: So let's assume that if luck is a thing, a real thing, it does pass by most all of us at some point. And some people - it passes by them multiple times. Let's say - I don't know - you want to increase your luck. What do you do? How do you increase your luck?

SEELIG: A lot of it has to do with taking tiny risks. It's getting out of your comfort zone. It's paying attention to things that other people don't pay attention to. It's talking to people who - where you're going to learn something new. It's learning something new each day. You know, reading a book, stretching yourself in different directions - clearly that process sets you up for seeing and then seizing those opportunities. And the key is you can't just see them. You have to see them and then do something about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

SEELIG: About a dozen years ago, I was on an airplane. Normally I would just put on my headphones and go to sleep, wake up, do some work. But I decided to take a little risk, and I start a conversation with the man sitting next to me. I introduced myself, and I learned that he was a publisher. We ended up having a fascinating conversation. I learned all about the future of the publishing industry. So about three-quarters of the way through the flight, I decided to take another risk, and I opened up my laptop, and I shared with him a book proposal. He read it, and he said, you know what, Tina? This isn't right for us, but thank you so much for sharing.

A couple of months later, I reached out to him, and I said, Mark, would you like to come to my class? I'm doing a project on reinventing the book - the future of publishing. He said, great, I'd love to come. So he came to my class, and we had a great experience. A few months later, I wrote him again. This time I sent him a bunch of video clips from another project my students had done. He was so intrigued; he wanted to meet those students.

Now, I have to tell you I was a little bit hurt, right? I mean, he wanted to do a book with my students and not with me, but OK, it's all right. So I invited him to come down, and he and his colleagues came to Stanford, met with the students. And afterwards, we had lunch together. And one of his editors said to me, hey, have you ever consider writing a book? I said, funny you should ask. And I pulled out the exact same proposal that I had showed his boss a year earlier. Within two weeks, I had a contract, and within two years, the book had sold over a million copies around the world.

(CHEERING, APPLAUSE)

SEELIG: Now, you might say, oh, you're so lucky, but of course I was lucky. But that luck resulted from a series of small risks I took starting with saying hello. And anyone can do this. No matter where you are in your life, no matter where you are in the world, no matter even if you think you're the most unlucky person, you can do this by taking little risks that get you out of your comfort zone. You start building a sail to capture luck.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: So luck requires some risk-taking. Does being younger make it easier than someone, say, you know, my age in my mid-40s or older who might be more risk-averse for a variety of reasons?

SEELIG: I could argue the opposite because you have in your life a foundation of lots of successes. There's really not much to lose. You probably also have a lot of situations where you've done things and they've worked out well, and so you've said, wow, I've got a track record of good things happening, so I'm willing to take a risk. A lot, again, comes back to our mindset. What are we afraid of?

One of the exercises I do with my students is I do an exercise on risk taking and luck. And we talk about what happens when you fail. When you hit bottom, what is it made of? And some students describe the bottom as made of rubber. You know, they bounce - or even a trampoline. Some students say the bottom for them is made of glass shards. Some people say it's quicksand. Some people say it's a black hole they fall in and they can't ever get out. And we start talking about this, and we realize that everybody has a really different mental model of what happens when they fail.

RAZ: Yeah.

SEELIG: And they start realizing that's something they can shape and change...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SEELIG: ...Because if you can turn that boiling-hot lava that you're going to fall into in to a trampoline, all of a sudden you're willing to take some risks because you know it's not going to hurt.

RAZ: What happens - I mean, it's not always possible for some people to take those risks because there isn't a trampoline, right? So is it just about the mental architecture of the way you see failure, or could it be a real thing, that it's actually really dangerous?

SEELIG: You're absolutely right. There are times in which you go, you know, listen; I need shelter. I need food. I need health care, and I'm going to make some decisions to make sure that I have all of those in place. That's realistic. However, I also believe that our mindset locks us in so often to making decisions that don't allow us to see all the possibilities.

One of the things I often think about is if you took several people who all had nothing - one person had nothing, never had anything. One person has nothing now but used to have a lot and lost it - and maybe someone who has nothing now but knows they're going to inherit a lot of money in the future. You've these three people who all have nothing, but they're going to interact with the world really differently based on their history and their perceived future. And I think we need to be aware of the constraints that we put on ourselves based on the stories we tell about where we've been and where we're going.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

SEELIG: So yes, sometimes people were born into terrible circumstances, and sometimes luck is a lightning bolt that hits us with something wonderful or something terrible. But the winds of luck are always there, and if you're willing to take some risks, if you're willing to really go out and show appreciation and you're willing to really look at ideas, even if they're crazy, through the lens of possibilities, you build a bigger and bigger sail to catch the winds of luck. Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

RAZ: That's Tina Seelig. She's a professor at Stanford University's Department of Management Science and Engineering. You can see her full talk at ted.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.