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Do You Feel Lucky?
BEING GOOD AT SOMETHING and having a pas-
sion for it are essential to finding the Element. But
they are not enough. Getting there depends funda-
mentally on our view of ourselves and of the events
in our lives. The Element is also a matter of attitude.
When twelve-year-old John Wilson walked into
his chemistry class at Scarborough High School for
Boys on a rainy day in late October 1931, he had no
way of knowing that his life was about to change
completely. The class experiment that day was to
show how heating a container of water would bring
oxygen bubbling to the surface, something students
at thisschoolandat schoolsallaroundthe worldhad
been doing for a very long time. The container the
teacher gave John to heat, however, wasnot like the
containersstudentseverywhere hadused. Somehow,
this container mistakenly held something more
volatile than water. It turned out that the container
had the wrong solution because a laboratory
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assistant had been distracted and put the wrong la-
bel on the bottle. And when John heated it with a
Bunsen burner, the container exploded, shattering
glass bottles in the vicinity, destroying a portion of
the classroom, and pelting the students with razor-
edged shards. Several students came away from this
accident bleeding.
John Wilson came away from it blinded in both
Wilson spent the next two months in the hospital.
When he returned home, his parents attempted to
find a way to deal with the catastrophe that had be-
fallen their lives. But Wilson didnot regard the acci-
dent as catastrophic. “It did not strike me even then
as a tragedy,” he said once in an interview with the
Times of London. He knewhe had the rest of his life
to live, and he did not intend to live it in an under-
statedway. He learnedbraille quickly andcontinued
his education at the esteemed Worcester College for
the Blind. There, he not only excelled as a student
but also became an accomplished rower, swimmer,
actor, musician, and orator.
From Worcester, Wilson studied law at Oxford.
Away from the protected environs of a school set up
for blindstudents, he neededto contendwitha busy
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campus and the very active streets in the vicinity.
Ratherthan relyingonawalkingstick,though, here-
lied on an acute sense of hearing and what he called
his “obstacle sense” to keep him out of harm’s way.
At Oxford, he received his law degree and set out to
work for the NationalInstitute for the Blind. Hisreal
calling, however, was still waiting for him.
In1946, Wilsonwent onafact-findingtour of Brit-
ish territoriesinAfricaandthe Middle East. What he
found there was rampant blindness. And unlike the
accident that cost him hiseyesight, the diseases that
affected so many of these people were preventable
withthe proper medical attention. For Wilson, it was
one thingto accept hisown fate andquite another to
allow something to continue when it could be fixed
so easily. This moved him to action.
The report Wilson deliveredupon his returnled to
the formation of the British Empire Society for the
Blind, now called Sight Savers International. Wilson
himself served as the director of the organizationfor
more thanthirty yearsandaccomplishedremarkable
things during his tenure.
His work often led him to travel more than fifty
thousand miles a year, but he considered this an es-
sential part of the job, believingthat he neededtobe
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present in the places where his organization’s work
was being done. In 1950, he and his wife lived in a
mudhut inapart ofGhana knownas“the country of
the blind” because a disease that came from insect
bites had blinded 10 percent of the population. He
set his team to work on developing a preventative
treatment for thedisease, commonly knownas“river
blindness.” Using the drug Mectizan, the organiza-
tion inoculated the children in the seven African
countries stricken with the disease and all but erad-
icated it. By the early 1960s, river blindness was
overwhelmingly under control. It is no exaggeration
to say that generations of African children canthank
the efforts of John Wilson for their sight.
Under Wilson’s direction, the organization con-
ducted three million cataract operations and treated
twelve millionothersat risk of becomingblind. They
also administered more than one hundred million
doses of vitamin A to prevent childhood blindness
anddistributedbraille study packstoafflictedpeople
throughout Africa and Asia. In all, tens of millions
can see because of the commitment John Wilson
made to preventing the preventable.
WhenWilsonretired, heandhiswifedevotedtheir
considerable energies to Impact, a program of the
World Health Organization that works on the
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prevention of all types of disabling diseases.
Knighted in 1975, he also received the Helen Keller
International Award, the Albert Schweitzer Interna-
tional Prize, and the World Humanity Award. He
continued to be an active and prominent voice for
the cause of preventing blindness and all avoidable
disability until his death in 1999.
JohnColes, in his biography Blindnessand the Vi-
sionary: The Life and Work of John Wilson, wrote,
“By any standards, his achievements rate comparis-
on with those of other great humanitarians.” Others
have compared his accomplishments with those of
Mother Teresa.
Many people, faced with the circumstances Sir
John Wilson encountered, would have bemoaned
their existence. Perhaps they would have considered
themselves cursed by ill fortune and frustrated in
their attempts to do anything significant with their
lives. Wilson, however, insistedthat blindness was“a
confounded nuisance, not a cripplingaffliction,” and
he modeled that attitude in the most inspiring pos-
sible way.
He lost his sight and found a vision. He proved
dramatically that it’s not what happens to us that
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determines out lives—it’s what we make of what
Attitude and Aptitude
There is ariskingiving examplesof people who have
found their Element. Their stories can be inspiring,
of course, but they can also be depressing. After all,
these people seem blessed in some way; they’ve had
the goodfortune to do what they love to doandtobe
very good at doing it. One could easily ascribe their
goodfortune to luck, andcertainly many people who
love what they do say that they’ve beenlucky (just as
people who don’t like what they’re doing with their
lives often say they’ve been unlucky). Of course,
some “lucky” people have been fortunate to find their
passions and to have the opportunities to pursue
them. Some “unlucky” people have had bad things
happen to them. But good and bad things happen to
all of us. It’s not what happens to us that makes the
difference in our lives. What makes the difference is
ourattitude towardwhat happens. The ideaof luck is
apowerful way of illustrating the importance of our
basic attitudes in affecting whether or not we find
our Element.
Describing ourselves as lucky or unlucky suggests
that we’re simply the beneficiaries or victims of
chance circumstances. But if being in your Element
were just amatter of chance, allyoucoulddoiscross
your fingers and hope to get lucky as well. There’s
much more to being lucky than that. Research and
experience show that lucky people often make their
luck because of their attitudes.
Chapter 3 looked at the concept of creativity. The
real message there isthat we allcreate andshape the
realities of our own lives to an extraordinary extent.
Those who simply wait for good things to happen
really would be lucky to encounter them. All of the
people I’ve profiled inthisbook have taken an active
role in “getting lucky.” They’ve mastered acombina-
tion of attitudes and behavior that lead them to op-
portunitiesandthat givethem the confidence totake
One of these is the ability to look at situations in
different ways. There’s adifference betweenwhat we
are able to perceive—our field of perception—and
what we actually do perceive. As I mentioned in the
last chapter, there are significant cultural differences
in how people perceive the world around them. But
two different people with the same cultural orienta-
tions may still see the same scene in completely
different ways, dependingupontheir preconceptions
and their sense of mission. Best-selling author and
top motivational speaker Anthony Robbins demon-
strates this with a simple activity. In his three-day
seminars, he asksthe thousands of people inattend-
ance to look around and count how many items of
green clothing they can see. He gives them a few
minutesto do thisandthen asks themfor their find-
ings. He then asks them how many items of red
clothing they saw. Most people can’t even begin to
answer the question because Robbins told them to
look for items of green clothing, and they only fo-
cused on those.
In hisbook The Luck Factor, psychologist Richard
Wiseman writesabout his study of four hundred ex-
ceptionally “lucky” and “unlucky” people. He found
that those who considered themselves lucky tended
to exhibit similar attitudes and behaviors. Their un-
lucky counterparts tended to exhibit opposite traits.
Wiseman has identified four principles that char-
acterize lucky people. Lucky peopletendtomaximize
chance opportunities. They are especially adept at
creating, noticing, andactinguponthese opportunit-
ies when they arise. Second, they tend to be very ef-
fective at listening to their intuition, and do work
(such as meditation) that is designed to boost their
intuitive abilities. The third principle is that lucky
people tend to expect to be lucky, creating aseries of
self-fulfilling prophecies because they go into the
world anticipating a positive outcome. Last, lucky
people have an attitude that allows themto turn bad
luck to good. They don’t allow ill fortune to over-
whelm them, and they move quickly to take control
of the situation when it isn’t going well for them.
Dr. Wiseman performed an experiment that
speaks to the role of perception in luck. He set up a
nearby café witha group of actors told to behave the
way people normally did in that setting. He also put
afive-pound note on the sidewalk just outside the
café. He then asked one of his “lucky” volunteers to
go down to the shop. The lucky person saw the
money on the ground, picked it up, walked into the
shop, and ordered a coffee for himself and the
stranger at the next chair. He andthe stranger struck
up a conversation andwoundup exchangingcontact
Next, Dr. Wiseman sent one of his “unlucky” vo-
lunteers to the café. This person stepped right over
the five-pound note, bought coffee, and interacted
with no one. Later, Wiseman asked both subjects if
anything lucky happened that day. The lucky subject
talked about finding the money and making a new
contact. The unlucky subject couldn’t think of
One way of openingourselvesup to newopportun-
itiesisto make consciouseffortsto lookdifferently at
our ordinary situations. Doing so allows a person to
see the world as one rife withpossibility and to take
advantage of some of those possibilities if they seem
worth pursuing. What Robbins and Wiseman show
us is that if we keep our focus too tight, we miss the
rest of the world swirling around us.
Another attitude that leads to what many of us
would consider “good luck” is the ability to reframe,
to lookat asituationthat failstogoaccordingtoplan
and turn it into something beneficial.
If thingshadworkedout differently, there isavery
good chance that I wouldnot be writing this book at
all now and you would therefore not be reading it. I
might be running a sports bar inEngland and regal-
ing anyone who’d listen with tales of my glittering
soccer career. Igrewup inLiverpoolasone of alarge
family of boys and one sister. My father had been an
amateur soccer player and boxer, and like everyone
in my extended family, he was devoted to our local
soccer team, Everton. It was the dream of every
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