Here’s why some people seem to win more than others.
When I received a copy of longtime journalist Karla Starr’s new book Can You Learn to Be Lucky?, my inner cynic had an easy answer for the title’s (presumably) rhetorical question. No, it’s not possible to be lucky. Because luck as a self-help ideology is fucking stupid. I’ve had my brief encounters with the hopefulness of luck; I’ve carried around rabbit’s feet as a kid and made wishes on shooting stars, dropped money on lottery tickets and Las Vegas blackjack tables, every time thinking this would be the moment my luck changed. It never did, because luck is an illusion; it’s like saying the sports team that wins the World Series/Super Bowl/NBA Playoffs had the most fans doing superstitious rituals before the big game. Luck is meaningless voodoo.
But Starr’s book is a fascinating read, even (or especially) for somebody who doesn’t buy into the idea of luck, or at least not the “luck” you grew up kinda-believing (or dismissing out of hand). Starr’s idea of luck is pretty similar to the Kettering Principle, a concept she brings up in the book’s first chapter, and named after the automotive and refrigeration inventor. “Keep on going,” his theory goes, “and the chances are you will stumble on something, perhaps when you are least expecting it. I have never heard of anyone stumbling on something sitting down.”
I called Starr to talk about her book—on sale this week—which may or may not become a best-seller because the author is so lucky, “which is something I’ve been worried about,” she told me. “How ironic would it be if a book about luck is so unlucky that nobody buys it? Does that mean everything I wrote in the book is wrong? Oh god, is this whole interview going to be about my self-sabotage?”
It wasn’t. But we did discuss a few ways that we—and everybody—might be thinking about luck the wrong way.
I always think of luck as being something intangible and metaphysical. It’s the one part of life that’s supposed to be out of our control. Yet you approach luck like it’s a skill.
I think it can be. This book came out of a period where I was really depressed. It was just after the Great Recession in 2007. I got divorced, moved back to Portland, and was sleeping on my mom’s couch. Every single thing in my life was in the shitter. I had no job, no money, no social life. I’d just sit around and watch TV on Vicodin. I was the ultimate lazy person. But then I thought, what’s the one thing I can study that’ll help me improve every aspect of my life?
Most rational people wouldn’t have gravitated towards luck.
No, of course not!
That’s like saying, “The only way I’ll turn my life around is by getting more ladybugs to land on me!”
It’s crazy. Most of us only think of luck as really large, one-off events like winning the lottery. Or things that happen when there’s math involved and human involvement doesn’t really affect the outcome, like gambling. It makes sense from a mental health standpoint why we try not to prescribe a lot of things to luck, because the more we think things are out of our control, the less motivated we are to actually do things.
So what made you decide to find out if there was more to luck than…luck?
I was depressed, and when you’re in that mental state, the universe can seem random and chaotic. I wanted to find order in the randomness, so I could push my way through it towards something more useful. That’s why I took so long writing this book because I didn’t want to settle for the theoretical. I wanted to see if I could actually change my luck.
And could you?
Give me an example.
I used to go into a lot of social situations thinking, “Everyone’s judging me. Everyone hates me.” So I’d be cold and standoffish. When I started going to the gym, because I wanted to give this whole health thing a try, and I was incredibly insecure. I didn’t say hello to anybody. I didn’t so much as nod in their direction because I thought they were all laughing at me.
All the other people working out at the gym?
Literally all of them. I thought they were all sneering at me and thinking, ‘She’s too old and fat, what’s that old hag doing here?’ But then I started working on this book and looking at all the research that showed just the opposite.
That people aren’t silently judging you?
There’s that great Juilliard study you mentioned in the book, where people guessed the winners in a classical music competition just by their body language, without hearing any sound. Which means people are likely judging you on your attitude more than anything.
That’s right. So I thought, I should just put myself out there, see what happens. I went to this big gym event and started walking up to people at random, total strangers, and saying hello. It became this self-fulfilling prophecy of acceptance.
Were they surprised by the sudden attention?
The first thing somebody said to me was, “Oh, we were all wondering if you were ever going to talk to us. We thought you were too cool for school.” I was shocked. They thought I was too cool and I thought they hated me. So I started changing everything about my attitude. If you exude a warmness and openness towards people, your social interactions will be so much more positive.
It’s such a revelation when you figure out that other people are too busy grappling with their own insecurities to be worried about criticizing you.
Right? Their sole purpose in life is not just to judge me. That’s so weird.
Here’s how I’d sum up your book in a sentence, and you tell me if I’m off the mark: Luck comes down to never underestimating the laziness of the human brain.
Yep, that’s about it.
It’s either manipulating our lazy brains or manipulating other people’s lazy brains.
When I was deciding whether to go back to the gym and start working out, at first I let my lazy brain take control. I told myself, it’s all about genes. My genes are crappy, so why even bother trying? This is just my lot in life.
Which is bullshit.
It’s absolute bullshit. But those are the lies we tell ourselves to talk our way out of luck.
Some of the things you write about, they still feel like conventional ideas about luck. Like if your face reminds somebody of a grade school bully or a shitty ex, they’re less likely to give you a chance. That’s old-school bad luck, right? You can’t really change that.
Maybe not the immediate first impression. But you have a window of opportunity to disprove those negative impressions. What ends up happening is, it starts with “I don’t like you. You remind me of my ex. I’m never going to talk to you,” but if you’re forced to get to know this person over a period of time, then you’ll be like, “Oh, they’re actually kind of nice.”
So sometimes luck is about sticking around long enough to change their minds?
There’s a quote in your book from venture capitalist Paul Graham, who said he was easily fooled by anyone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg. Is that an actual thing he said?
That’s a seriously insane thing to admit out loud.
He’s said that he was joking, but I think there’s a kernel of truth behind a statement like that. Especially if you look at all the big guys in Silicon Valley, all the founders and co-founders, they’re all awkward dudes in grey hoodies. There’s a value to looking the part. We grade a lot of people on a curve depending on how much they match our expectations.
That’s really depressing.
Well, it’s not the only reason people are successful. It’s just one factor. The thing is, our brains are lazy so we’re always looking for short cues. There’s some great research from Cameron Anderson, a professor at the University of California in Berkley, about why dominant personalities rise to the top. People mistake confidence for competence. If you look the part and act the part, you must be the part.
It’s easy to be confident when things are going your way.
Right. Anybody can be optimistic when you’re getting what you want.
But how do you fake it when there’s nothing to support that confidence?
How do you have one without the other?
Right. You can’t be confident unless you’re lucky, and you can’t be lucky unless you’re confident. It’s a catch-22.
Well, for me, it came down to curating my life and getting rid of the crap that reminded me of my divorce, my ex, all of the bad periods in my life. I threw out the ripped, dirty clothes because I realized it was me internalizing, “Oh, I only deserve that.” We do that with everything. If your home looks like crap, that can affect the way you feel. I feel so different about myself depending on whether my bedroom or office is clean. If everything is neat and orderly, it makes me feel like a competent professional. But when things start piling up, I’m like, “Ugh, I’m a slob. I suck! My life is a mess!”
So, help me put these pieces together. Changing your luck is about changing the way you think about yourself, or changing the way you think about what other people think about you?
It’s a little bit of both. It’s 50 percent getting rid of all the baggage that comes with social interactions, and not worrying about all those little things that you have absolutely no control over, but also thinking about what you’re bringing to the table. It’s really important to have resilience and not get too disheartened by the people who say no to you because a lot of that is out of your control as well. Maybe they just said no because you came up at the wrong time for them.
There’s a great line in your book, I’m just going to read it right from the page. “We probably don’t want to know how much our lives have been influenced by the state of other people’s brains when we pop up in their schedules.”
That seems so obvious, but it’s nice to be reminded. Because when you’re being rejected, it’s so easy to think, “I’m not worthy; I’m a piece of shit.” Rather than, “There was probably a million other things on their mind when they destroyed my world.”
When I moved back to New York a couple of years ago, I went on this crazy dating spree. I think my record was three dates in one night. These guys could have been genuinely good, caring people, but sometimes, depending on the date, I was just not having it. I’m sure there were a few of them that I would’ve really liked, but for whatever reason, I just wasn’t in the right mindset when we met. And I’m sure the same thing happened on the other end. I liked them and would’ve like to see them again, but our timing was off. There were things happening in their world that had nothing to do with me or my worth as a person. It was just, yeah, sorry, not now.
Reading your book made me think about LeBron James. I’m sure there are better examples but he’s the first person that comes to mind when I think of somebody who didn’t get ahead because of luck. If anything, just the opposite. He came from bad luck. But he got to where he’s at today by working harder than everyone else.
Doesn’t a guy like that just nullify the cultural idea of luck? Or does he prove that luck is an entirely different concept than we’ve grown up believing?
If you look at what it actually takes to become an expert, it’s not that one thing has to go right. It’s that every single thing has to go right. With someone like LeBron, he picks the right sport, at the right time, he’s got athletic genes, he’s given the right coaches in the right environment and he works his fucking ass off. You also need to have that resilience and be an incredibly motivated person. It’s one of the reasons that a lot of international talent scouts for the Olympics are looking at personality as a good predictor for future Olympic athletes. The thinking now is, we’d rather have somebody with a mediocre set of athletic genes but a mentally tough personality, over somebody who’s really tall but is never going to practice.
There’s a great anecdote in your book about Tony Hawk, who works out new skateboard moves even when he should be relaxing with friends.
Yeah. There’s something to that.
So maybe luck is finding that thing you love so much that you want to do it even when you don’t have to do it?
Every little thing you do adds up: Every single time you reach for the salad instead of a brownie, every time you practice your skill instead of just playing a video game, and every single minute means something. You look at people who are world-class…whatever they are, it’s just a lifetime accumulation of how much they put into that one thing.
What I got from your book, and this conversation, is that luck really doesn’t exist. It’s a made-up construct to explain people who are just trying harder and paying closer attention to how the lazy brains around them are making decisions.
In a way, sure. It’s really tempting to think everything that happens is out of my control. Because that absolves us of the hard work. And it’s easy to think that because we don’t see it.
Because nobody brags about it on Facebook?
Nobody is posting, “Here I am making less than minimum wage and this is my seventh year of this horseshit and I’m hoping someday all this hard work pays off but right now it sucks really hard.” My coach, he’s a top CrossFit guy, and he works out for four hours a day. He’s been weighing his food for like ten years. That’s what it takes to get to his level. It is absolutely not about luck. Anybody in the world you think is lucky is just really good at hiding the hard work.
All of my coach’s Facebook posts are just videos of him doing something incredibly superhuman like it’s no big deal. So people think he has this phenomenal life and then he stops by the gym for five minutes to lift 300 tons above his head. That’s not how life works. Nobody gets to that place without doing a lot of agonizing work you don’t see.
He seriously weighs his food? Who weighs their food?
People with abs, that’s who.