Rational about superstition

Even hardheaded businesspeople can have workplace rituals and lucky talismans

Bright idea: Dave Kerpen, chief of Likeable Local, has a collection of orange shoes as he sees it as a positive colour

Ryan Paugh is a man with a lucky pebble. “My wife gave it to me. It’s from Santa Fe, New Mexico, which is a spiritual sort of place and it is meant to keep away bad spirits and attract good energy. So when I’m trying to raise money or launch a product I keep it in my pocket,” says the founder of YEC, the US invitation-only entrepreneurs’ organisation.

Mr Paugh explains that while he does not exactly believe his pebble is imbued with magical powers, “it feels good. It’s an object that reminds you to be in a positive frame of mind and it reminds me that I work hard for my family.”

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Many businesspeople will admit privately to luck playing a part in their careers. A token is a way of giving good fortune a helping hand. “A lot of entrepreneurs do this sort of thing, but few of them of them talk about it. They will have an object or a piece of clothing that is essential to their persona,” says Mr Paugh.

Even if you do not bel­ieve in luck, it may be that people you work with or do business with do – in which case, the beliefs of others may affect both your own behaviour and general outcomes anyway.

Dave Kerpen, chief executive of Likeable Local, a social media software company, has a very public talisman: he wears orange shoes. “I fell in love with the colour orange and got my first pair of shoes a few years ago,” he says. “When I wore them I had a great day.”

After that there was no stopping him. “I now have 23 pairs of orange shoes and never wear any other colour. Things have gone well since I started wearing orange shoes so why stop? I’ve now got to the point where I think I’d feel uncomfortable if I didn’t wear orange shoes.”

He believes orange is a powerfully positive colour, but admits he might be looking for facts to fit his theory:“If I were being kind to myself, I’d describe my shoes as a habit. An obsession would be less kind.”

Mr Kerpen is not alone in having a pair of lucky shoes. “I have a pair of Converse Chuck Taylors,” says Matthew Egan, founder of search engine optimisation company Image Freedom. “I bought them pretty early in the business and it became something of a joke that when I wore the shoes I closed deals.”

While Mr Kerpen always has orange-accented footwear for work, Mr Egan does not wear his Converses all the time. Normally he favours dress shoes, but if he is doing a deal or selling to clients, out come the sneakers. “Tying the laces and wearing the shoes is a mixture of ritual and talisman. If I put the shoes on, I am saying, ‘I cannot fail’.”

Aron Schoenfeld, founder of events platform Doitinperson.com, says he never makes a phone call sitting down. “It started as a habit and has stayed with me as a superstition. It gives me that extra confidence, Even if people look at me like I’m crazy.”

Mike Bruny, a life coach and author who is never without a bow tie to hand, says: “Putting on a bow tie when I want to get moving definitely is ritualistic – it just changes the mood of everything and I’m ready to get to work once that bow tie goes on.”

Superstitions in business are not just personal. Many office buildings find a way not to label the 13th floor as such, while the property website Zoopla says a significant percentage of streets are built without a house numbered 13, and reckons that in the UK house number 13 is worth £4,000 less than house number 12 or 14.

In China, the number eight is regarded as lucky and developers may employ experts to ensure their buildings incorporate feng shui principles. A tortoise shell was buried in the Heron Tower development in London in 2009 because it is believed to be auspicious according to feng shui principles. Although feng shui is not usually a high priority for UK tenants, it can be an important consideration for a global business.

In India, astrologers are consulted in business and politics. “Astrology, not psychology, is king in India. Be it romance or finance, the astrologer often, though not always, has the last word,” says corporate astrologer Be­jan Daruwalla, whose clients include companies and businesspeople.

A business does not have to subscribe to superstitions but it may pay to recognise their power. A company might choose to rent number 88 because it knows customers may bel­ieve it is lucky. Ensuring a building has good feng shui may keep tenants happy. It’s about having a rational belief in the power of irrationality.

The management thinker Marshall Goldsmith says there are two sides to lucky charms and rituals in business. One, which he sees as negative, is a kind of attribution error. “It’s saying I behave this way and I’m successful. Therefore this behaviour must make me successful. So a lot of people fall into the superstition trap.”

At the level of lucky pebbles this is fairly harmless. However, Mr Goldsmith believes it can lead to the replication or celebration of behaviour that is simply misguided. He cites an example in games of chance. “Watch a game of craps in Vegas. When a guy throws a six, the dealer will say, ‘who wants to bet on a “hard six”?’ as if throwing a six makes throwing another six any more likely,” he says. “Clearly, this is statistically nonsense.”

But many people do believe in luck, if only to a small extent. Similarly, they attribute success to the habits of leaders, and may try to emulate them.

However, the psychological impact may be more real than cynics realise. A 2010 study at the University of Cologne showed that lucky charms and rituals can enhance self-confidence, encourage people to set higher goals, be more persistent and, ultimately, perform better. This is Mr Goldsmith’s beneficial side of lucky tokens in business. He adds that rituals in the forms of certain behaviour can act as triggers. “These are habits that remind us to do certain things and behave in certain ways. If you look at a basketball player bounce the ball three times before shooting a hoop, it triggers muscle memory and helps them avoid distractions.”

The object or ritual gets you into the frame of mind to perform at your best. “The trigger itself is not meaningful,” says Mr Goldsmith. “It just serves to remind you.”

Many of those guided by a super­stition admit that the object or action is clearly not intrinsically magical. “When you step back rationally, the idea of something like a pair of lucky shoes is utter [rubbish], but it’s still something we do,” says Mr Egan. “It’s like saying to yourself in the mirror, ‘You are powerful, you are confident.’ You put your faith in the shoes and let the shoes worry about it.”

Of course, pebbles can get lost and shoes eventually wear out. But Mr Egan has an answer to this: “I’m actually on my second pair of deal shoes, but the new ones have the old laces and insoles. I moved as much as I could over. The new shoes have never let me down either.”

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