Pouring energy into an activity leads to expertise and enthusiasm. Expertise and enthusiasm are valuable and contagious. And “luck” is magnified by the number of people to which these are effectively communicated (and who can in turn help and spread the message).

In the words of Jason Roberts, acting on passion and telling people about it can increase your “luck surface area”, a concept he formalizes with the equation           L = D * T, “where L is luck, D is doing and T is telling” and which he illustrates as:

Courtesy of Jason Roberts

Similarly, Richard Hamming, in a lecture on doing successful research, put it thus:

You see again and again, that it is more than one thing from a good person. Once in a while a person does only one thing in his whole life, and we’ll talk about that later, but a lot of times there is repetition. I claim that luck will not cover everything. And I will cite Pasteur who said, “Luck favors the prepared mind.” And I think that says it the way I believe it. There is indeed an element of luck, and no, there isn’t. The prepared mind sooner or later finds something important and does it. So yes, it is luck. The particular thing you do is luck, but that you do something is not.

References and further reading:

Jason Roberts. 2010. How to increase Your Luck Surface Area

Richard Hamming. 1986-03-07. You and Your Research


Understand “the importance of being attentive to hazards that carry a low risk each time but are encountered frequently.”

Avoid the common tendency to “exaggerate the risks of events that are beyond our control” and happen infrequently and to groups (attacks, crashes, etc); focus instead on “risks of events that we can control…and of events that kill just one person in a mundane way.”

For example, if a daily activity has a 1/1000 risk of fatality, focus on reducing that risk substantially – or you may not make it through the next few years.

In the words of the polymath Jared Diamond, adopt an attitude of “constructive paranoia”.


Further reading:

Jared Diamond. 2013-01-28. That Daily Shower Can Be a Killer. NYT


Remember why you are doing something. Focus on meaning.

Nietzsche was right: “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” In a classic experiment conducted by the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, children asked to pretend that they were guards on duty were able to stand longer, and children asked to pretend that they were going to a store had an easier time memorizing words. More recently, a team of researchers led by Kentaro Fujita, replicated and refined these findings:

They used a series of methods to move people’s mental processes to either high or low levels. High levels were defined by abstraction and long-term goals. Low levels were the opposite. For instance, people were asked to reflect either on why they did something or on how they did something. “Why” questions push the mind up to higher levels of thinking and a focus on the future. “How” questions bring the mind down to low levels of thinking and a focus on the present. … These manipulations of mental state had no inherent relation to self-control. Yet self-control improved among people who were encouraged to think in high-level terms, and got worse among those who thought in low-level terms. Different measures were used in assorted experiments, but the results were consistent. After engaging in high-level thinking, people were more likely to pass up a quick reward for something better in the future. When asked to squeeze a handgrip, they could hold on longer. The results showed that a narrow, concrete, here-and-now focus works against selfcontrol, whereas a broad, abstract, long-term focus supports it. That’s one reason why religious people score relatively high in measures of selfcontrol, and why nonreligious people…can benefit by other kinds of transcendent thoughts and enduring ideals. [Baumeister & Tierney]

The evidence recalls a scene in The Godfather Part II, in which Michael Corleone, visiting Cuba on the eve of the revolution, is torn about whether to make an investment there:

Michael Corleone:       I saw a strange thing today. Some rebels  were being arrested. One of them pulled the pin on a grenade. He took himself and the captain of the command with him. Now, soldiers are paid to fight; the rebels aren’t.

Hyman Roth:               What does that tell you?

Michael Corleone:       It means they could win.

Further reading:

Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney. 2011. Willpower: Rediscovering the    Greatest Strength. Penguin


“Eat five to six small meals daily” [Loehr & Schwartz]. “Snacks between meals should typically be between 100 and 150 calories and once again should focus on low-glycemic foods such as nuts and sunflower seeds, fruits, or half of a typical-size 200 calorie energy bar” [Loehr & Schwartz]. If you exercise, “ensure that the foods being consumed have enough salt in them to replace the salt lost through sweat” [Bartlett & Al-Masri, p. 168]. “Do not skip snacks before bedtime. Snacks should include both carbohydrates and proteins. Because the body recovers during sleep, it is important to ensure that it has enough fuel to build and repair properly” [Bartlett & Al-Masri, p. 147].

“The frequency with which we eat also influences our capacity to stay fully engaged and to sustain high performance. Eating five to six low calorie, highly nutritious ‘meals’ a day insures a steady resupply of energy. Even the most energy rich foods won’t fuel high performance for the four to eight hours that many of us frequently permit to pass between meals” [Loehr & Schwartz]. “Many studies have shown that humans exhibit a pronounced oral need—to drink, smoke, or nibble—on a 90-minute schedule. Research from Mount Sinai Hospital in New York found that volunteers, left on their own in an environment without any time cues and told to help themselves to food, drink, or cigarettes whenever they felt like it, did so on a regular schedule—at a mean interval of ninety-six minutes” [Rossi, p. 122].


Further reading:

Lilah Al-Masri and Simon Bartlett. 2011. 100 Questions and Answers about Sports Nutrition and Exercise. Jones and Bartlett Publishers

John A. Hawley and Louise M. Burke. 1997. Effect of meal frequency and timing on physical performance. British Journal of  Nutrition (1997), 77, Suppl. 1, 591-5103.

Ernest Lawrence Rossi. 1991. The 20-Minute Break. Los Angeles: Tarcher.

Mary M Tai et al. 1991. Meal size and frequency: effect on the thermic effect of food. AJCN


According to his friend and colleague, Gian-Carlo Rota:

Richard Feynman was fond of giving the following advice on how to be a genius. You have to keep a dozen of your favorite problems constantly present in your mind, although by and large they will lay in a dormant state. Every time you hear or read a new trick or a new result, test it against each of your twelve problems to see whether it helps. Every once in a while there will be a hit, and people will say: “How did he do it? He must be a genius!”

More specifically, use the Feynman Algorithm:

  1. Write the problem down, in an unambiguous way.
    • Often this is just as hard as the next step. Indeed, really, really understanding the problem is sometimes the only hard bit: once you really, really understand the problem, the answer may be obvious. Of course, you don’t have to wait until understanding the problem before moving on to the next step, that way lies AnalysisParalysis, just stick a StakeInTheQuicksand and go for it!
  2. Become convinced it’s important, really important. Think about odd ways to solve it, things you wouldn’t tell other people for fear of being laughed into the next century. Look at simple things, look at really complicated intricate solutions. Then talk to others. Talking to others will allow you to crystallize some of the ideas you have, and produce more ideas for you to think about. Repeat until you have an answer you can write down. If you do this right, immediately before you come up with the answer people will think your almost obsessed with the problem, and the answer to it.
    • Note: If you don’t have people to talk to, write down some intermediate results or something to make them become real.
    • Some problems don’t have answers, only compromises, or proofs of impossibility. These are also valid answers if you can show that a real answer doesn’t exist.
  3. Write the answer.