5/19/2005

Godel, Escher, Luck

Mood: organo-fantastic!

In a recent post entitled Visit the Library Steve Pavlina discussed a phenomenon I’ve noticed often:
“It’s funny how often today’s best “secrets of success” can be found in the writings of Socrates, Franklin, or Emerson. It’s humbling to think I’ve figured out a new secret to life, the universe, and everything, only to later discover that Aristotle had me beat by 2350 years.”

Humbling, indeed. What I find interesting is that this “already been done” phenomenon isn’t limited to rediscovering ideas across eons. You can walk to over to the Nonfiction Section around Dewey Decimal Number 658 and find dozens of “Leadership Secrets of [your name here]”, many espousing identical management principles. The sections for topics such as diet/nutrition and personal productivity exhibit the same phenomenon. And there will be dozens of new titles on each topic every year, more similar than dissimilar in the content of their messages. Why does the library stock so many, and why do publishers publish so many?

During a recent trip to the library, I perused the audio book section for some commute time material. I found an item called The Prayer of Jabez, which I knew nothing about beyond the fact that it had sold several million copies. Because my investment in library materials is limited to my time, and will spend time commuting every day, I can afford to take a flyer on a library audio book. So I borrowed the Prayer of Jabez. [Ed. Note: I’m not going to review the book or do any evangelizing; there’s a larger point to come. Please bear with me].

The totality of the prayer is: “Oh that Thou would bless me indeed, and enlarge my territory, and that Thine hand might be with me, and that Thou would keep me from evil, that it may not grieve me!” The author, Bruce Wilkinson, elaborates on key points to keep in mind about the prayer:
  1. God grants blessings to those who ask and are truly open to His blessings
  2. Many of those blessings will be outside of our current comfort zone, or quite different than what we were expecting
  3. We need to actively look for those “stretch” blessings, because they don’t always come with gift tags
  4. We need to be confident that God wants us to succeed in realizing those blessings
  5. Don’t go looking for blessings in all the wrong places

I thought the content was positive; noteworthy but unremarkable. Only after I looked at the Amazon book reviews (currently 528 of them!), did I discover that this little book generated strong negative feelings among many people. You can check out the criticism here.

The primary purpose for my visit to the library that day was to pick up a copy of a book called The Luck Factor by Richard Wiseman. The author, a former magician and now a professor at the University of Hertfordshire, conducted research to determine if there were specific differentiating factors between ‘lucky’ and ‘unlucky’ people – sort of like a “Good To Great” of personal fortune. Happily, Wiseman’s research did identify four key principles of luck:
  1. Maximize your lucky chances – be open to new experiences, and build a strong network of luck
  2. Listen to your lucky hunches – trust and refine your intuition
  3. Expect good fortune – expect to be lucky and successful. Attempt to achieve your goals, even if your chances of success seem slim, and persevere in the face of failure.
  4. Turn bad luck into good – look for the positive in misfortunes; don’t dwell on them; take constructive steps to prevent more bad luck in the future.

The book includes self-assessments of luckiness and offers exercises to increase your luck based on the four principles. You can see some of these at the Luck Project web site. It was a very enjoyable read; well written and organized; with lots of colorful anecdotes and fascinating experimental methods.

Thinking about the two books, I was struck by how similar their core concepts are. One of the biggest differences is that “Jabez” suggests saying the prayer daily to open yourself to the Lord’s blessings whereas “Luck” suggests using meditation to improve your intuition. A reader who wants to develop a program to improve their opportunities in life will end up doing nearly the same activities regardless of which book they choose to guide them. And Aristotle probably wrote nearly exactly the same thing 2350 years ago. I believe that in the field of human endeavor, every important concept has been considered and documented many times. There are no new leadership secrets. None will be forthcoming. While this news may come as a disappointment, the cloud has a silver lining: no matter what challenge you face in life, someone has already met and conquered it. Probably many someones, many times. But the solution to your problem, like the blessings in “Jabez”, may not exist in the exact form you want (complete with gift wrap and detailed step-by-step instructions in six languages with culturally appropriate illustrations).

Whoa! I’m having an M. Escher moment! I just realized that my conclusion - Any problem you have has already been solved multiple times by other people – is a driving force behind the principles of “Jabez” and “Luck”!

Confession time.

When I finished “The Luck Factor”, I got a strong feeling that it was more than mere fate that I had picked up these two volumes in the same trip. It seemed like a good story to me, but I didn’t know what it meant. I figured if I started writing, the conclusion would come to me (hey, it’s worked before)! But I got to “fascinating experimental methods” and just stopped. I had nothing. Staring slack-jawed at the monitor. Waving my index finger across my lips going “B-b-b-b-b-b-b-b-b”.

A few minutes later I recovered consciousness, saved the file, and went about my business. A few hours later the subsequent paragraph about No New Ideas gelled in my head. And then I had the Escher moment. If every problem I face has already been solved by someone else, the only reason I’m not applying their solution is my ignorance of its source. Conversely, I’ve probably got loads of answers to other people’s problems in my head, but they don’t know that either. ‘Jabez’ and ‘Luck’ both place emphasis on actively cultivating these types of connections. The bigger my ‘luck network’ is, the more solutions and opportunities I potentially have at my disposal. The other principles of both books center on:
  1. believing that this networking effort will bear fruit
  2. being open to the fact that the process will work in unforeseen ways
  3. not being disheartened by setbacks - ‘making lemonade out of the lemons life gives you’
  4. protecting your network from ill influences

There. If you haven’t read either book, I’ve just saved you the effort. Of course, you may want to experience one or both of them anyway. The reason why you would want to read them is the answer to the question of why libraries stock so many books. I’ll put the organo-fantastic spin on that topic the next installment!



posted by Mike at 5:45 AM


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