Ian McKellen on Creating Luck

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Can you pinpoint an instant when you were lucky? Like that time you were offered a substantial role in what was guaranteed to be a blockbuster movie, turned it down, and then received two more offers the next day? Wait, that wasn’t you. I was thinking of acclaimed actor and luck magnet Ian McKellen.

Before Ian McKellen was an internationally known icon, but after he was a renowned Shakespearean stage actor, he was offered a part in Mission: Impossible II with Tom Cruise.

In a recent interview, Ian said that he declined the offer based on the limited amount of information about the role. His agents were upset, but he held his ground.

The next day, Ian was offered the parts of Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings series and Magneto in the X-Men series – two crucial roles in two pop culture juggernauts by two notable directors. If you are still questioning Ian’s luck, once he was offered both roles, the directors worked together to ensure his schedule could accommodate being in both movies.

You can’t prepare for luck. I’ve learned that you’ve got to be ready for the luck when it arrives, but you’re going to need the luck. – Ian McKellen

I am not writing about Ian’s good fortune to bum you out; I mention it to show the power of luck. You may write off luck as something beyond your control, but according to research, you actually have an incredible amount of control over how lucky you will be.

According to Richard Wiseman, head of the psychology research department at the University of Hertfordshire and author of The Luck Factor, those who are lucky think and behave in ways that create good fortune in their lives. One way is that they practice positive counterfactual thinking, i.e. they perceive events with an optimistic spin. For instance, unlucky people lose out on a job opening and feel that it isn’t fair, whereas lucky people see this loss as a learning opportunity and a chance to do better in the next interview.

Another trait distinguishing luck is level of anxiety. Wiseman found that unlucky people were twice as anxious. He stated, “because lucky people tend to be more relaxed than most, they are more likely to notice chance opportunities, even when they are not expecting them.” In addition, results show that lucky people are more satisfied with their lives. This may seem obvious (of course those with luck are happier, life is going their way), unless you consider that 1) most of the “lucky people” in the study did not identify themselves as lucky, and 2) their life events were no better of worse than everyone else; lucky people were able to put a more positive spin on their setbacks.

There’s a big distinction [between chance and luck]. Chance events are like winning the lottery. They’re events over which we have no control, other than buying a ticket… When people say that they consistently experience good fortune, I think that, by definition, it has to be because of something they are doing. – Richard Wiseman

To increase your luck, Wiseman offers four approaches that we can utilize immediately:

  1. Maximize chance opportunities. Where you might be hyper-focused on a singular task, lucky people remain open to possibilities and act upon these prospects. Get your head out of the weeds and pay attention to what’s happening around you.
  2. Listen to your lucky hunches. Stop distracting yourself from hearing what your intuition has to say. Shut your door, turn off the electronics, and clear your head so you can focus on your gut feelings.
  3. Expect good fortune. This confidence shapes how you make decisions and provides the drive to move forward when faced with adversity.
  4. Turn bad luck into good. Avoid the “woe is me” pouting; find a benefit from every hardship.

These approaches will not guarantee you the opportunities afforded to Ian McKellen (you still need talent), but they will increase your chances of finding good fortune. By incorporating them, you will begin to create your own luck. Defeats won’t feel as defeating and opportunities will begin to present themself that were previously unimaginable. You don’t need a four-leaf clover or a rabbit’s foot; your positive, constructive outlook will deliver all the luck you need.

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