a Guest Post by Annie Levin
In a ten-year-long study on the nature of luck, Professor Richard Wiseman found that a key difference between lucky and unlucky people came down to attention.
Self-described “lucky” people had a relaxed, open attention that allowed them to notice unexpected opportunities arising in their environment. In contrast, self-described “unlucky” people displayed a tense, narrow attention that obscured even overt opportunities. For instance, one experiment asked participants to count the number of photographs in a newspaper. Page Two featured a half-page ad that said, “Stop counting. There are 43 photographs in this newspaper.” Lucky people, open to the unexpected, tended to spot it; unlucky people tended to miss it because their attention was focused elsewhere.
I’ve been increasingly troubled by the narrowing effect my cell phone use has on my attention—how often I’m eye-locked to a screen and oblivious to my environment. Eager to open my attention and reconnect with the world around me, I attempted my own experiment:
No phone in public places for one week.
Here’s what happened in just three days:
Riding the subway to work, I notice the man beside me is reading a book I love. I comment on the book, we engage in a lively conversation, and we exchange emails to share information on topics of mutual interest. On his way off the train he comments, “I’ve been trying to get away from using my phone on the train. This was the first day I read a book on my commute in months!” “Me too!” I shout, as the doors close behind him.
Leaving my office to grab a late lunch, I turn onto bustling Sixth Avenue and see a twelve-year-old boy who looks remarkably like the son of a dear friend who lives in a rural New Mexico town of fewer than 10,000 people. I’m certain it can’t be him, but the resemblance is so strong I have to ask. It is in fact my friend’s son, traveling the country with other relatives for the summer; he’s in New York City for a single day. We snap a photo and send it cross-country to my friend, who was just that morning thinking about her son and wondering how he was doing.
In between the subway and my office, I lock eyes with a former co-worker I haven’t seen in years. She tells me she’s about to begin a new job at an organization where I happen to know several people—I give her the names of friends to send regards to, and she gives me a lead on a freelance project I may find interesting.
And that was just the first three days. The opportunities and connections continue to arise—moments I would have missed if my attention were laser-beamed at my phone.
Plus, a post-script: remember the man on the subway reading a book? Two weeks later a newfound friend invites me to a 40th birthday party she’s hosting. Do I even need to tell you that the birthday boy is the man from the train?
Put down the phone, friends. The everyday magic of open attention—what we like to call “luck”—awaits.
Annie Levin is an attorney/doula/pollinator who works with individuals and organizations to bring creative, cross-disciplinary thinking to the complex challenges of our times. She is a curator for the collective, The Emergence Network, and the host of Precipice, a show on Voice America's Revolutionary Wellness Talk Radio. Annie is a graduate of Harvard Law School and a scholar at the Orphan Wisdom School.