My Car Battery and the Science of Good Luck

Last winter when I was spending a bunch of money on auto repairs, the mechanic advised me to also replace my battery. He gave me an estimate of $200 for a new battery installed. That sounded high, but when you own a diesel you expect everything to be a little higher. I decided to hold off on getting a battery. For the next few weeks I stopped off at different auto places to get quotes on a new battery. Every place I went didn’t have a battery in stock for my car.

My battery was only failing when the temperatures were very low, so I decided not to replace the battery right away. Throughout the spring, summer and early fall my battery ran like a champ. Then recently as the temperatures started dropping, I noticed it was struggling to start. So once again, I started the process of looking for a new battery at a good price.

Before I go through the chain of events of what happened next, let me tell you about the book I was reading during this time period.

The Luck Factor
The Luck Factor by Richard Wiseman

The Luck Factor is about the science of luck. The author has done numerous experiments on people that consider themselves lucky and those that consider themselves unlucky. A lot of luck is how we interpret and respond to a situation. “Lucky” and “unlucky” people will respond to similar situations differently, which affects the actions they take or don’t take, which affects the outcome. This was the section I was reading that Saturday morning:

Principle Four: Turn Bad Luck into Good

With that in mind, let me resume the car battery story.

My car battery would likely not last another month, so I went to a Walmart hoping to get a good price on a car battery. Plus they had free installation. A grizzled old Walmart mechanic looked under my hood for a good 30 seconds before asking me “Where is the battery?” and “Did you drive here with a battery?” I’m not kidding. Not a good sign. BAD LUCK. Then his side kick appeared and let me know they didn’t have a battery for my diesel. Now normally that would be BAD LUCK, but given that their mechanic couldn’t even locate where my car battery was, I left with a sign of relief. GOOD LUCK.

Then we had another week of warmer temperatures, so I waited until last Friday to resume my battery quest. I had thwarted the Car Battery Gods for too long. It was time to get a new one. When I went to start my car, it was dead. I had waited one day too long. BAD LUCK. Now I needed a jump. The day before I met one of my neighbors at Trader Joe’s. We had been neighbors for two years, but we never formally introduced ourselves until that day. Saturday morning I was able to get my newly met neighbor to provide me with a jump. GOOD LUCK.

Photo by Mohammed Alnaser

Unfortunately, my car battery was completely dead. It wouldn’t even take a jump. BAD LUCK. Now I would have to pay for a tow. I’d also have to cancel my Espresso Road Trip event to Tacoma scheduled for Sunday. When I cancelled, I got an email from a member volunteering to come over and help me get a new batter and assist with the install. GOOD LUCK.

We got an inexpensive battery at Sams Club that actually fits my car. He was a member. Unlike Costco which is a zoo on weekends, very few people shop at Sams Club in Seattle. There were no lines. GOOD LUCK. He also bought some tools to help with the install. When we got back to my car, I popped my hood and ran into the house to get some scissors to open the tool package.

When I returned to my car, my friend was chatting with a guy that we thought was changing a flat tire nearby. The guy looked at our tools and said they that we had purchased the wrong ones and that we needed metric tools. BAD LUCK. Then I looked into his car, which had tons of tools. I learned he wasn’t fixing a flat tire, he was a mobile mechanic. He had every tool under the sun in his car. I hired him on the spot to install my car battery. GOOD LUCK. He wanted $50. BAD LUCK. I countered with $20. He accepted. GOOD LUCK.

I thought installing a car battery was a simple task. Not for my car. I watched as this guy changed my battery. His hands moved like a surgeon. My friend and I later chatted that we only thought we could change the battery, but after watching him work, we knew finding him was a Godsend. And we only found him, because he parked directly in front of where my car had died the day before. AMAZING LUCK.

In the end, I spend $98 on the battery and $20 on the install. A sweet bargain. At every turn where there appeared to be BAD LUCK. I thought about the lessons from the Luck Factor.

Lucky people see the positive side of their bad luck.

When Walmart didn’t have my battery it was bad luck, until I met the incompetent mechanic that was going to install it. Then it was a blessing.

Lucky people do not dwell on their ill fortune.

Despite numerous setbacks, I kept my eyes focused on solving the problem without focusing on everything that had went wrong. The result was my car was up and running by Saturday afternoon and I was able to attend my Espresso Road Trip event the next day. There are some excellent lessons in the The Luck Factor, which I will cover in a future post.

Comments

  1. Mark says

    Enoyed that, MAS.. Remember – “To change the World, first change your mind about the World”. That principle was well illustrated in your story.

    MP

  2. David says

    sounds similar to another good book called The Fred Factor. Basically, the spoils don’t go to the smartest guy in the room, but to the most enthusiastic/upbeat among us.

  3. Jim says

    MAS,
    Reminds me of a zen story about a farmer and his son. When others judge their circumstances as good or bad luck, (they alternate like in your battery story) the farmer just says “we’ll see” after each event. So it sounds like the Luck Factor says to see the positive side, while zen teachings say that events are neither good nor bad, even if we perceive them as such. Similar, but different approaches. I look forward to your review of the book.

  4. Karl says

    I remember Greg Easterbrook writing about positive psychology in his book on optimism. It’s been awhile, but the basic story was that certain mental states like gratitude were associated with positive outcomes and happier people. Positive psychology was geared toward getting people to practice getting into those states.

    I have no idea if those kinds of phycologists are still around or if their work has been borne out by research or is even still around, but the basic idea I think it pretty correct. You can’t control what happens to you and it’s even hard to control how you react to it, but through conscious effort it’s definitely possible to bend the curve in your direction.

  5. Pauline says

    I have read the Luck Factor because I am fascinated by luck or what I call Serendipity. I met someone this week out of the blue who was also browsing some books, once we started chatting we could not end the conversation and decided to meet the next day. We met yesterday and our lives have run on parallel lines on so many levels, its comedic. We had a good laugh at our similar paths. She had suggested a novel about parallel lives whose author was her name. I am also writing about parallel lives in a short story. Why did I go to that book section (it was a place where people leave books and has a charity box) and she was in my way as she hovered around, but we started chatting about books we enjoy and it just went from there. Luck is a crazy thing, its all about being open to possibility and how to interpret events. That was a crazy eventful path your battery took you on for sure and I have also had a very serendipitous week.

  6. Pauline says

    I have often felt when I don’t get something I want that I may have been very lucky who knows what may have come out of it if I had got it. It never stops me trying new things because you never know what may come out of new experiences or experiments. The motto when one door closes another door opens.

  7. Becky says

    I went to a psychologist many years ago who taught me the art of “positive re-framing”. It is exactly what you did in your quest for a battery when you realized it was good luck that Walmart did not have a battery that fit. There is good in every event in some way, it’s just that it is habitual whether you look for it or lament your bad luck. You can train yourself to have good luck. It’s all about perspective. Great story!

  8. says

    @All – I forgot to highlight one more aspect to this story. I had spent almost 9 months going to different stores looking for a battery to fit my 11 year old diesel. None of the stores had a battery for my car. Yet when my friend and I went to Sams, they had it. And Sams is owned by Walmart, which is the same business that didn’t have the battery in stock for the last 9 months. GOOD LUCK.

    @Pauline – Your story highlights Principle 1, which is Maximize Your Chance Opportunities, which is an idea I also read from Nassim Taleb.

    See #2:
    http://bigpicture.typepad.com/comments/2008/08/rules-for-livin.html

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