Lessons from Chance Encounters 

I had just touched down in Tampa when I glanced at my nails. Peeling, fading polish glared back at me. With back-to-back speaking engagements in the next few days, I knew I needed a manicure.

A quick check at my hotel revealed the normally ten to fifteen-dollar cosmetic luxury would cost thirty dollars at the pricey hotel beauty shop. Not feeling that extravagant, I walked to the closest mall in search of a nail salon. That’s when I found De-Ja-Vu. They offered basic manicures for twelve dollars. Sold!

Waiting for a manicurist to free up, I sat next to a woman about thirty years my junior. As women of all ages do, we struck up a conversation. She was from Baltimore; here visiting her boyfriend and interviewing for a job so she could move closer to him. Sensing she had the ear of someone slightly more experienced, she picked my brain for some interviewing and communication tips and said she felt fortunate we ran into each other. Like a good book you fail to finish reading, I sometimes wonder what happened to her. Did she get the job? Did she move in with the boyfriend? How did her life turn out?

For those of us who talk to just about anyone, we are prone to chance encounters almost everywhere. I sometimes think about people I’ve met on airplanes, in train stations, on vacation, at the supermarket or waiting in line to see a ticketed event. Most of these people, we never remember or see again. Others, even if we don’t know it at the time, may have crossed our paths for a reason.

Earlier this year as I was taking a walk, I had one of those encounters with people who had also accidentally encountered each other. It was a cold, blustery day so there weren’t many people out and about. As I turned a corner, there was a couple trying to take a selfie. I offered to help. That’s when I learned they had met fifty years ago at that very hour on that exact street corner in Longport, New Jersey. They had come back to celebrate at the exact time and exact spot where they began their life together.

When they met, they were teenagers who lived in different states and had come to visit family who lived on neighboring streets. Unlike today, where texts and social media make it easy to stay in touch, they exchanged phone numbers, but long distance calls were expensive back then so they wrote letters. After college, they got together.

Some experts believe if you prepare yourself to make the most of chance encounters, good things will happen to you. They even say you can significantly increase the chances of finding a great job, meeting your soul mate and creating your own luck. If this sounds like a bunch of malarkey, there is science to prove there could be something to it.

Psychologist Dr. Richard Wiseman wrote a book called The Luck Factor which concludes that not only is luck is a way of thinking and behaving, but it’s also something that can be learned.

In a post at Oprah.com, writer Ben Sherwood details one of Wiseman’s early experiments where he taped a £5 note to a sidewalk outside a coffee shop. Then he planted actors at tables inside. One actor was a ‘millionaire’; the others were not. Each person was instructed to behave the same way. Next, he recruited two subjects he calls Martin and Brenda. Martin described himself as lucky; Brenda said she was not a lucky person. When Martin walked up to the store, he immediately spotted the money, picked it up, entered the coffee shop and sat down next to the millionaire. They engaged in conversation and even started exploring opportunities to do business together.

Brenda, however, never noticed the money when she walked past it. She also sat down next to the millionaire, but they never spoke. According to Sherwood’s post, when asked to describe his day, Martin said he had a lucky day. Brenda described her day as uneventful.

Both people had the same opportunity, but acted differently. Wiseman says lucky people create, notice, and act upon chance opportunities in their lives. He believes that being in the right place at the right time is more than fate; it’s about being in the right state of mind.

Clearly, every chance encounter isn’t life changing. While you might recognize when someone has made a difference for you, you don’t always know when you’ve made a difference for them unless they tell you. I recall sitting next to a young man on a coast-to-coast flight. He was struggling with personal issues which we talked about for much of the flight. He had saved my business card and nearly a year later, e-mailed me to thank me, saying my advice prompted him to move in a different direction and he was happier than he had ever been.

Psychologist and theorist Albert Bandura studied how seemingly random encounters change lives. He writes that former President Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy met when she began to receive mail meant for someone else. She complained to the Screen Actors Guild, of which Reagan was president at the time. They met and were engaged shortly after.

In a commencement speech at Stanford University, late Apple founder Steve Jobs says if he had not dropped in on a calligraphy course, the Mac may have never evolved the way it has today.

Thinking back to nearly three decades ago, a chance encounter changed my life. My friend and I entered the same café where we noticed a man enjoying a bite to eat. I made eye contact. She didn’t. At a party later that evening, I spoke to him. She didn’t. She had a negative attitude, commenting he was too old for me (we’re two years apart), was probably married (he was single) and rattled off a host of other assumptions. I was more positive, perhaps more open to luck and chance encounters. That man is now my husband of almost thirty years.

Bandura says chance encounters are important because they have branching power. That means, they could not have been planned, yet they frequently inspire a chain of events that can shift someone’s life course and open unexpected opportunities.To take advantage of chance encounters, Bandura recommends looking outward to grab the branches within reach. To me, this means the following:

BE PRESENT
Instead of burying your nose in your cell phone when sitting alone, look up and out so you make eye contact with others. If I had not made eye contact with my husband, my life would be very different.

CHANGE ROUTINES
Like a good workout routine, you need to change things up, so you work different muscle groups. The same can be said for daily life. If you walk to work, take a different route. Perhaps you’ll stop into a different coffee shop, talk to someone new, see a sign announcing an interesting program you might attend. You never know who you’ll meet along the way.

IMAGINE POSITIVE OUTCOMES
In the Journal of Positive Psychology, researchers demonstrated that people who imagined a “best possible self” for one minute and wrote down their thoughts, generated a significant increase in positive effect. Simply put, if we are optimistic, we are likely to turn chance encounters into positive experiences.

Last week, I was seated next to a ninety-year-old woman on a plane. I had work to do and a movie I wanted to watch. Making idle conversation with a stranger was not part of my plan. Only to be polite, as I sat down, I said hello, how are you She burst into tears and said, “I’m scared”.

Her husband had died. Her children and grandchildren live all over the country. She had never traveled by herself before. She was sad and felt very alone. We talked. I helped her to the bathroom and off the plane, then stayed with her until she was safely seated in a wheelchair with an airline attendant to help her retrieve her bags. She asked for my card.

When I sat down to write this column today, it was not supposed to be about chance encounters. Then I received her email which read: “Just a note to thank you again for being so friendly and helpful to me on our flight!”

To me, it was nothing more than being kind. To her, it meant much more. We never know how a chance encounter will influence or change lives. We do know that these seemingly simple moments happen to all of us and if we’re paying attention, they can have a positive life-long lasting effect.