In Germany, chimney sweepers are seen as symbols of good luck (as is some other countries, too) – especially rubbing one of the golden buttons of their traditional uniforms. Therefore, in the beginning of the year, they parade through the streets and give candy to children. Today, I was able to take this photo as a bunch of them were lining up for the local newspaper. That’s a lot of luck in one picture! 🙂
But then, if you don’t believe in lucky charms and would rather like to create your own luck, you might want to (re-)visit my 2014 TEDx talk on this beautiful subject.
After having approval by the TED organization, I´m finally and officially allowed to share with you the TEDx talk I gave in Bergen/Norway on October 4. I talked about the issue of luck – and how we all can bring more luck into our lives. So please excuse me if the article’s headline was a little misleading. No here´s the talk. I firmly intend to get a least 100.000 views – so please share it if you like. And below, you´ll find a complete transcript (more or less…) and the history behind it all. Enjoy!
So here´s the story before the story that´s also part of the story. I gave the talk on October 4 (Saturday) – and was invited to give the talk on Monday of that same week – because one of the speakers cancelled on short notice. The week was a regular work week, so my time for preparation and rehearsing was really, really short. Typically TED speakers have a couple of months to prepare and they get coaching to deliver their talk right on point. I´ve had nothing like that.
I had to conceptualize and write my talk, tweak it, and learn it all by myself in some 15 hours. And given these rather difficult circumstances, I´m actually pretty proud of myself – which is a rather un-German thing to do. Typically, when I give presentations, I do have a script or something like that. I prepare my charts and give the talk ad lib – which works out pretty well (based on the feedback I get).
But giving a TED talk is totally different from hosting a presentation in a board room. Basically, you cannot “let the charts do the talking”. You have to be a true storyteller. And in order to be able to do that, I decided to do something which I haven´t done since early high-school: leaning something by heart´. I wrote down what I wanted to say word by word – and then tried to memorize it all, sort of like an actor in a theater. That´s why I´m able to share the script with you right here.
I´ve watched my talk three times by now to evaluate my performance. And it’s really interesting to note where I stayed true to the script, where I forgot something, or put something in ad lib – and how that made the talk better (especially a little funnier) than intended (at least from my point of view).
So here´s the transcript. Enjoy – once again!
A great storm came into a town and there was an emergency warning that the riverbanks would soon overflow and flood all the nearby homes. The officials ordered everyone to evacuate immediately. A faithful Christian man heard the warning and decided to stay, saying to himself, “I will trust God! God will send a miracle to save me.” The man´s neighbors came by his house and said: “We’re leaving and there is room for you in our car, please come with us!” But the man declined. “I have faith that God will save me.”
The flood rose higher into his living room and the man had to retreat to the second floor. A police motorboat came by and saw him at the window. “We will come up and rescue you!” they shouted. But the man refused once more, saying, “Go save someone else! I have faith that God will save me!”
Still the waters rose higher and higher and the man had to climb up to his rooftop. A helicopter spotted him and dropped a rope ladder. “Grab the ladder and we will pull you up!”, an officer screamed. But the man still refused, folding his arms tightly to his body. “No thank you! God will save me!”
Shortly after, the house broke up and the floodwaters swept the man away and he drowned. An instant later, the man knocked at the pearly gates, was let in, walked straight up to God and asked: “Hey Man, I put all of my faith in you. Why didn’t you come and save me?” And God said, “Geez, I´m so sorry about that. I really tried to save you. I sent you a car, a motorboat, a helicopter….
Today, I want to talk to you about luck. Serendipity. Fortune. Originally, I wanted to name my talk “How to get lucky”. Thank God I´ve found out just early enough that this means something else entirely…
So instead, I´ll call it “How to be the architect of your own fortune”. Let´s have a look at that word: Fortune. It can be derived from the name Fortuna – and Fortuna was the Goddess of luck and fate in the Roman mythology. There she is. What you can clearly see: she is blindfolded. That means: she is impartial. She can bestow upon each of us good luck and fortune, but also disaster. The point is: she´s not supposed to care about the recipient. Instead, she is an agent of chance. She is a symbol for the unpredictability of life.
That is what the ancient Romans believed: Luck, whether good or bad, is something that happens to us. We cannot interfere. Some people are born under a lucky star – and some are not. But it turns out that this view about the world is most likely incorrect.
Today, I want to convince you that we all can – at least to a great extent – be the architects of our own fortune. We can change our stars. We can learn how to be lucky. In order to do so, I will draw on the work of a few great scientists, and I will draw on the wisdom of some ancient and some contemporary sages. And I will also illustrate some points based on my personal history.
But let me start with you guys…
Here in my hands I have a bill. It is a 100 Kronen bill and it´s worth roughly 15 US dollars. Now the question is: does somebody of you want to have this 100 Kronen bill? It is real. Who wants to have it? Please raise your hands…
Ok, so would somebody please stand up and come to stage and collect the bill? … OK, thank you – a big round of applause to our lucky winner.
So what happened? Why didn´t all of you take to the stage? What were you thinking? I guess it was something like: “Ahem…is he really…no…he´s not really…oh wait he really is…damn…too late.”
What did he do? He/she acted. He said: yes. Go for it. And that is already a big part of the mystery. I believe that luck favors those of us who act. Those that go out and do something. Those, that take a chance. There you have it: take a chance! Luck likes people who say: YES!
Nico´s TED History
Truth is: I´m a lucky guy. I am not on a TEDx stage for the first time. This is the second time. I spoke about how to “not get mad in a traffic jam” at a TEDx event in Cologne last year. But: I wasn´t invited to speak. I was a regular guest just like most of you are today. One of the speakers cancelled right on that day – but instead of extending the break, the organizers did something else: They addressed the audience and said: “OK, so we´re going to split up those 18 minutes by three: and if you feel like giving an impromptu 5-minute TEDx talk, write your name down on a piece of paper, put it on the speaker´s desk during the next break.
So I wrote my name down and put it on the desk. And lucky me: my name was drawn from the stack and I gave my little 5-minute TEDx talk – and it was a big success. There was definitely an element of luck in there. There were 10 or 12 slips of paper on the desk. So my chances were roughly at 30%. I was lucky, definitely.
But: To be invited to give an ad-lib Tedx talk takes more than being lucky. For example, you have to be there in the first place. You have to buy a ticket and show up. That´s straightforward – but nevertheless crucially important. And then, in this case, you have to express yourself. You have to be brave and optimistic and write your name on that slip of paper and tell the world what you have to offer. And then, when your name is acutally pulled from the stack, you have to say yes. You have to go for it. You have to be brave. Just like the fellow who now owns 100 Kronen more than 10 minutes ago.
But that´s not the whole story. In order to give an improvised TED talk, you also have to be prepared. You need to have knowledge and stories in the back of your head. You have to be ready. The books I´ve read, and the seminars I attended, the hundreds of TED talks I watched – all that helped me to be prepared when the opportunity arose. And there we have four essential building blocks for being the architect of your own fortune:
Prepare – be there – express – and say yes! Prepare – be there – express – and say yes!
Sounds good, does it? Let´s look at those four elements in detail
Louis Pasteur – Prepare
The scientist Louis Pasteur famously said: Chance favors the prepared mind. I think he stole that from Oprah Winfrey. Chance favors the prepared mind. Pasteur was referring to scientific discoveries when he proclaimed that – but isn´t that just a special case of being lucky? What he meant was: You have to be able to understand what you see when you see something. You have to be able to connect the dots, discover a pattern – and make sense of it. And this ability, in turn, is based on training, prior knowledge, expertise. That´s what why we tend to get luckier the more we learn and grow.
Woody Allen – Be there
Let´s turn our attention to a slightly more modern sage: Mr. Woody Allen. He´s often quoted as follows: “80 percent of success in life is showing up.” And I think he´s absolutely right. We have to go places, meet people, we have to be curious. Be present. Be open. Be mindful. Luck seldom happens to us when at home alone. Luck mostly comes to us in the form of other people. Luck favors those that go out and mingle. If you don´t buy a ticket to a TEDx event, there´s no way you can step in when one of the speakers cancels. If you don´t apply for the job of your dreams, you´re definitely not going to get it. If you don´t talk to the beautiful stranger, you won´t get lucky – there, now I said it. We tend to get luckier the more curious and open we are.
Richard Wiseman – Express
Now let´s also look at some science: Richard Wiseman is a British psychology professor who is known for his unconventional research ideas. About 10 years ago, he´s published a book by the name of “The Luck Factor” – and a lot of what I tell you today is based on his work. He´s got a lot more to say on the topic – but let´s just look at a sentence from the summary section:
Luck is not a magical ability or a gift from the gods. Instead, it is a state of mind – a way of thinking and behaving.
One thing he found is: Lucky people are not really luckier, they just try harder. They display more Grit, as Penn Professor Angela Duckworth would frame it. Another important behavior is: expressing yourself. And let others express themselves. Show the world what you´ve got to give. Let them know. And listen to what others have to say and to give. Be open. present. Be mindful.
Richard Branson – Say yes
And finally: Say yes! Over the last weeks, I frequently stumbled upon this quote by Sir Richard Branson – and I´m sure he´s knows something about being lucky. The quote goes:
If somebody offers you an amazing opportunity but you are not sure you can do it, say yes – then learn how to do it later!”
And that – once again – has a lot to do with the talk I´m giving right now. Actually, I was invited to give this talk just 5 days ago. I met one of the organizers, Tjorben, in Berlin in June. And we met again 10 days ago in London. We had dinner together and he told me how he´s working on the final preparations for this TEDx event. And I said jokingly: “Oh, that´s great. If you do it again next year, you can invite me as a speaker.”
5 days ago, he texted me via Facebook: One of the speakers had cancelled. And he asked me if I would be able to come to Bergen today to speak to you. Now here´s what a proper German should have said:
“Oh, Norway? This Saturday? That´s tough. You know, I have to do the grocery shopping on Saturday, and then there´s soccer on TV…and it´s a really long trip. Hmm. But I said yes. I´m lucky. Truth be told: First, I asked my wife for permission: But then I said yes. Yes is such a beautiful word. Let´s conclude: We tend to get luckier the more we say yes instead of no!
Steven Johnson – The Adjacent Possible
Let´s look at some more science: A couple of years ago, I bought this brilliant book at an airport: Steven Johnson´s “Where good Ideas come from”. In a nutshell, it´s a book about creativity and innovation – and why great ideas mostly do not happen anytime, anywhere, and to anyone.
A core concept of the book is the principle of the “Adjacent Possible” – which Johnson borrowed from evolutional biologist Stuart Kauffman. The idea at the core can be put like this: The adjacent possible is a yet unrealized state – or rather a multitude of unrealized states – of some entity. An adjacent possible is a potential state in the near future that may or may not be realized. But there are always constraints with regard to what is possible. An example from biology: in a world where there are only monads – one cell beings– the adjacent being cannot be a dinosaur. Life cannot jump from one cell to dinosaur directly. But jumping from one cell to two cells – that´s an adjacent possible. Then cell clusters, that turn to into more complex structures – and then, after lots and lots of adjacent possibles, you may get your dinosaur at the end of the day.
Johnson transferred this principle to the world of ideas and innovation. He´s able to show that innovation also moves along the path of the adjacent possible. You couldn´t have the first car without the invention of the wheel, oil refining, and the combustion engine. And you´d have to know about all of these things.
And I believe that´s also why some people are luckier than others. By going out and learning, and talking to people, and saying yes, they enlarge their personal sphere of the adjacent possible. They create an extended space of possibility. They make possible what for other people is absolutely impossible. Prepare – be there – express – and say yes!
Esa – Systems of Holding Back
Let me take this idea to another level – especially the “saying yes” part. The question is: Can we all together turn the world into a luckier place? Yes, we can. Enter Esa Saarinen. Esa is one of Finland´s most eminent philosophers – and he surely looks like one, don´t you think? I had the honor of being taught by him at the University of Pennsylvania shortly before Christmas. Together with a co-worker, Esa has developed a framework he calls “Systems Intelligence”.
A core concept in Systems Intelligence is the idea of Systems of Holding Back. More precisely: Systems of Holding Back in Return and in Advance. Again, the idea is very simple at the core – I´ll give you an example: Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love with girl and wants to tell her. But he´s afraid she could say no. So he remains silent. Meanwhile girl also loves boy. But she´s frightened as well. So she also remains silent – and they never become a couple. End of story.
That is a small system of holding back in return and advance. The tragic thing is: This happens every day. Everywhere. Not only with lovers. But also friends, family, co-workers, political parties, governments, and nations. We want to make a contribution. We want to give. We want to do good. But we are afraid. So we hold back. And by collectively holding back we create the “systems of holding back” that make “holding back” even more likely in the future. It is a downward spiral.
Each of us has to pro-actively counter these systems: So please ask yourself:
What are you holding back, and what is the contribution you could make? Today, and in the future?
When are you saying “no” when you could and should really say “yes”?
How could you bring more luck into your life and that of others?
Just a short info: right now, I’m on my way to Bergen in Norway. Tomorrow, I’ll be a speaker at TEDxBergen. I was invited to give this talk just five days ago – because another speaker had to cancel. Lucky me.
That’s why I decided to give a talk on luck and serendipity – and how we can be the architects of our own luck. I’ll share it here once it is available online…