Why are some people so much luckier than others?
James Scott Bumgarner, more famous as James Garner, film and TV star, passed away recently at the age of 86. Many people have been writing about how great a guy he was and stories about his life.
A few things caught my attention. Not the least of which was how lucky he seemed. How does a guy without any acting experience and who hates talking in front of people land a well connected Hollywood agent to jump start his career? Luck?
In 1935, Hollywood created their talent scout system. Just like athletic scouts, folks would monitor Broadway plays and radio for talent. But occasionally they’d “discover” someone in public who didn’t have any acting experience - they just looked like a movie star.
Lana Turner, one of the most glamorous and popular female stars of Hollywood during the 40s and 50s (pictured here at the right with James at the 1966 Academy Awards), is a great example.
She was 16, ditching a high-school typing class and drinking a Coke at a soda shop in Hollywood, when someone spotted how attractive she was. He recommended her to his Hollywood agent friend and soon she was in a movie. Gorgeous girl - right place at the right time - lucky.
James had a right place at the right time story, too.
Before acting, James Garner had dozens of different jobs. He’d work them a few months, save money, quit, coast for awhile, and then find the next thing.
At 17, one of James’ jobs was pumping gas at a Shell station in Hollywood. That’s where James met Paul Gregory who worked at the drugstore across the street manning the soda fountain.
But Paul Gregory had a dream of being a Hollywood agent and talked about representing James.
James after all was good looking - enough people told him so. But James had no intention of being an actor. He just laughed it off.
Years later, James was coming back from a tour of duty in the Korean War and he spotted Paul’s name in Newsweek. Paul was now a stage producer with three big hits.
And about a year after that, while visiting LA and driving back from a failed attempt at getting a job drilling oil wells in Saudi Arabia, James spotted a sign: “Paul Gregory and Associates”. He wasn’t planning on stopping, but all of a sudden he noticed a parking space open up in front of the office.
James parked the car, went inside to visit his old friend, and Paul immediately decided to become James’ agent, send him to acting school, and help get him a job. The rest is a brilliant career in television and film.
It reads like another guy-gets-lucky-in-Hollywood story. But is it?
success or failure apparently brought by chance rather than through one’s own actions
Richard Wiseman was a professional magician before he became a famous psychologist. Given his interest in magic, he has a healthy dose of scepticism for things like superstitions and good luck charms. So Wiseman has spent a good deal of his career studying luck.
In one experiment, Wiseman asked people to self identify themselves as lucky or unlucky. Then he gave his test subjects a newspaper. “Count the number of photographs inside”, he told them.
There were 43 photographs.
On average, the unlucky people took 2 minutes to count them all. The lucky people? Seconds.
The lucky people noticed the giant message that took up half the second page of the newspaper. It said, “Stop counting – There are 43 photographs in this newspaper.”
The unlucky people missed it. They also missed the equally giant message half way through the newspaper, “Stop counting, tell the experimenter you have seen this and win $250.”
The “lucky” people weren’t lucky. They were just more observant.
And James was observant.
James fought in the Korean War and had more than a few close calls with death. James explains in his autobiography, The Garner Files, an event that could have turned out disastrous:
Like our South Korean allies, the Chinese and North Korean troops lived on a diet of fish heads, rice, and garlic. One night while on guard on the line, I caught a faint whiff of it coming from the direction of the enemy positions. I couldn’t see anything, but I knew there was someone out there and they were coming closer. Once I sniffed them I could hear them, too. It turned out to be a patrol heading straight for our position. They were just the other side of a rise when I passed the word down the line. We were ready for them and stopped them in their tracks.
His observation of enemy troops nearby likely saved a bunch of his fellow soldiers lives including his own. But it wasn’t James being lucky. It was James being observant.
Wiseman notes from his research that unlucky people also identify themselves as being tense and anxious, so he performed another experiment to confirm how anxiety affects people.
He had one group of people watch a moving dot on a computer monitor while other large dots flashed on the screen. They noticed the large dots. He did the experiment with a second group of people, but this time he offered a financial reward to make them more anxious. This group missed a third of the large dots that appeared.
Anxiety focuses us, but it also becomes an obstacle to observing opportunities in our lives.
One thing you notice from people talking about James’ life is how relaxed the guy was.
Appreciating the relaxed genius of the late James Garner.
RIP James Garner. One of my favourite cool actors. Always looked so relaxed on screen. A proper film star.
Russell Kane (@RussellKane)
James had a reason to be relaxed.
He and his brothers grew up in a home of mental, physical and sexual abuse. His father would force the kids to sing, and if they didn’t he’d whip them. His stepmother raped his teenage brother and beat the boys constantly.
If that wasn’t terrible enough, James grew up during The Depression in Oklahoma, meaning he, his family, friends and neighbors battled things like the Dust Bowl.
You want to put pressure on somebody, live through the Depression. In Oklahoma. In the dust. After that, studio executives don’t bother you at all.
James didn’t worry about much because nothing could be as bad as the life he had already lived.
Wiseman also found lucky people go out of there way to try new things and meet new people.
Remember all those jobs James had?
And James knew everyone: crew, cast, people in the towns he’d film in. Gretchen Corbet, one of the co-stars in James’ series, The Rockford Files, remembers, “Everybody loved him - but he took care of not only the actors and me but the whole crew. He knew everybody’s name, he knew everybody’s kids’ names.”
This wasn’t just after he was famous. He was doing it constantly.
I used to go around with the three of them — [Henry] Fonda, [Johnny] Hodiak, and [Lloyd] Nolan — as a sort of bodyguard-gofer-mascot.
At the table reading on the first day of rehearsals, Lloyd never had to look at his script. Everybody else was reading their lines, but Lloyd was letter-perfect…Fonda was amazed, because Queeg was a difficult part. “How the hell did you do that?” he wanted to know. “I hired Bumgarner,” Lloyd told him. So Fonda asked me if I would cue him, too, and I gladly agreed.
James considered himself an introvert. But that didn’t mean he didn’t take every chance to befriend someone else. He was happy to clean movie stars’ dressing rooms, or help them remember lines, just to get closer to new people.
One last point from Wiseman’s research - lucky people think the things that happen to them are lucky, even if they’re the same things that happen to the unlucky people.
In another experiment, Wiseman asked his lucky and unlucky test subjects how they would describe a hypothetical situation where the subject was in a bank, and a bank robber comes in firing his gun, shooting the subject in the arm. Unlucky people lamented about their terrible luck at being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Lucky people were thankful - the situation could have gone so much worse. One of Wisemen’s lucky subjects said, “It’s lucky because you could have been shot in the head.”
Again, given James upbringing, you get the sense that he too felt like anything after that traumatic childhood was just a blessing.
In a story James has about having to share a motel room with two other guys:
There were only two beds so I slept on the floor. The two Marines stayed up all night moaning about how unhappy they were — it was their first Christmas away from home and we were all just teenagers — but I was quiet on the subject. They were depressed and homesick, but there I was, lying on the floor, happy as can be.
It’s easy to look at successful people and chalk up their achievements to good luck. And sure enough, some people really do just win the lottery, or get born so beautiful that someone notices them on the street and puts them in a movie.
But if you go back through James’ story:
Paul Gregory was just one of many, many friends James kept making. He noticed his friend’s name in Newsweek, that sign in Hollywood, that parking space that opened up not because he’s lucky, but because he’s so keenly observant. And of course he’s observant; he’s one of the most relaxed people you could have met. He’s just happy to have gotten through that horrific childhood.
Is James Garner luckier than you or me? Maybe. But that’s because James Garner created his own luck.
When I started acting, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. I was just stumbling around, hoping to get lucky.
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