Can You Learn to Be Lucky?: Why Some People Seem to Win More Often Than Others

Can You Learn to Be Lucky?: Why Some People Seem to Win More Often Than Others

by Karla Starr

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“I don't know when I've been so wowed by a new author”
–Chip Health, co-author of The Power of Moments and Switch

A talented journalist reveals the hidden patterns behind what we call "luck" -- and shows us how we can all improve outcomes despite life’s inevitable randomness.

"Do you believe in luck?" is a polarizing question, one you might ask on a first date. Some of us believe that we make our own luck. Others see inequality everywhere and think that everyone’s fate is at the whim of the cosmos. Karla Starr has a third answer: unlucky, "random" outcomes have predictable effects on our behavior that often make us act in self-defeating ways without even realizing it.

In this groundbreaking book, Starr traces wealth, health, and happiness back to subconscious neurological processes, blind cultural assumptions, and tiny details you're in the habit of overlooking. Each chapter reveals how we can cultivate personal strengths to overcome life’s unlucky patterns. For instance:

• Everyone has free access to that magic productivity app—motivation. The problem? It isn’t evenly distributed. What lucky accidents of history explain patterns behind why certain groups of people are more motivated in some situations than others?

• If you look like an underperforming employee, your resume can't override the gut-level assumptions that a potential boss will make from your LinkedIn photo. How can we make sure that someone’s first impression is favorable?

• Just as people use irrelevant traits to make assumptions about your intelligence, kindness, and trustworthiness, we also make inaccurate snap judgments. How do these judgments affect our interactions, and what should we assume about others to maximize our odds of having lucky encounters?

We don’t always realize when the world's invisible biases work to our advantage or recognize how much of a role we play in our own lack of luck. By ending the guessing game about how luck works, Starr allows you to improve your fortunes while expending minimal effort.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780698139817
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/14/2018
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 1,064,734
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Karla Starr has written for O, The Atlantic, Slate, Popular Science, the Guardian, and the Los Angeles Times, and appeared on CBS Sunday Morning as an expert on luck. The recipient of a Best Science/Health award from the Society of Professional Journalists, she lives in New York and spends an inordinate amount of time lifting heavy things. This is her first book.

Read an Excerpt



Best in Show


Why Lucky Timing Is out of Our Hands


It's the third day of the nineteenth annual Motor City Tattoo Expo in the GM Renaissance Center in downtown Detroit, and I'm on my seventy-second straight hour of immersion in tattoo subculture. I've learned about the latest advancements in ink color, needles, and removal procedures. I've learned to not ask about the significance of names, because those conversations tend to turn to children, the deceased, or deceased children. I've also learned to not ask how many tattoos people have, because when you start doodling and wind up with a page full of interconnected scribbles, the correct answer to the question "How many drawings are on the page?" is both "a million" and "one." I've lost count of how many times I've been approached by artists making suggestions about how they'd cover the rare, blank canvases that are my arms and neck.


Like portly men descending upon a European beach, the tattooed are quick to expose skin upon entering a nonjudgmental environment. There are flames, there are fairies, there are flags. So. Many. Skulls.


Not only have I never seen so much living body art in my life, but it's multiplying. Most of the booths have been rented by tattoo artists; the air squawks, buzzes, and hums with the sounds of needles leaving permanent marks. Blank butts and upper arms enter, emerging colored and transformed. The freshly inked walk around, some with their body parts wrapped in Saran wrap to stop the bleeding, but most holding up paper towels or cloths, as though having recently returned from the front line.


But I am not here for the tattoos; I'm here for the competition. It's the third day, so the biggest contest most worthy of analysis has finally arrived: Best in Show.


There are three judges, two men and a woman, Sheri, who smiles when asked her age. "Twenty-two," she purrs in her Sweetwater, Texas, drawl. "And I've been tattooing for thirty years." She has long strawberry blond hair and in an alternate universe would make a great school librarian but in this universe has a sleeveless pink button-down shirt revealing full sleeves on each arm. All the judges have a few decades' worth of expertise, allowing them to excel at recognizing patterns and detecting details invisible to others. Knowing how the sausage is made allows them to spot cured meats made with an objectively trickier technique, whereas others would merely smile and say, "Tasty!"


I've talked my way onstage to see the judging in action, and seeing the tattoos from here is to appreciate the detailing, the shading, the colors, and the placement on a new level. I'm so close to countless bloodstained Wet-Naps used to blot new tattoos that I have to actively suppress the idea of running out for a hepatitis shot. After the last contestant leaves, the judges confer with one another before calling back three final contenders: a middle-aged man named Jay with a thigh tattoo of a blue and green face that merited pointing and oohing and aahing, a cute boy with an even cuter blue jay on his forearm (my gaze follows, confirming my undying love for brunettes with nice arms), and a friendly faced girl named Tanya with a brightly colored gecko on her left forearm. The judges peer at the inked flesh yet again, their mouths agape. The finalists leave.


Those onstage huddle to pick a winner. The judging for Best in Show starts with a strongly worded campaign against the face led by Mike Siderio: "I don't know about those colors." They agree that the texture was amazing-those details, those lines!-but they also agree that the colors were flat. Perhaps both the artist and the owner of the thigh wanted it that way, but the judges are the experts and the experts are pronouncing it flat. The face is out. Jay will be devastated. Alas, the only tissues around the stage are covered in blood.


The blue jay: "The branch and feathers were amazing. But the detailing of the stomach was a little soft and underdone." Of the three, the blue jay was my favorite. It's possible that the guy who served as its canvas-who is currently somewhere out there breaking hearts-swayed my opinion of the tattoo.


The last: "Those gecko hands were super-detailed," Sheri says, nodding.


"It gets at least a half a point higher. It had more impact," says the gray-ponytailed Brian Everett. (Note: Everett had no scorecard and was not an actual judge, but just some dude sitting onstage.)


"I'm a skull guy, so if I liked the frog, then that really means something," says Jason "Swany" Swanson, a barrel-shaped man who has flown in from Spokane, Washington, for the extravaganza. The frog/gecko seems to be gaining momentum. Sure, it was a great tattoo, but was it really the best that had been inked during the entire convention? The judges lean in and whisper. The MC, Carl-head shaved, goatee fiery red, voice thick from a lifetime of Marlboros-has had enough cans of Red Bull to dissolve his adrenal glands and seems to want to call it a day. But if they wanted to award the absolute best, wouldn't they chug some more Red Bull and look at every tattoo? Someone hands Carl a sheet of paper.


"And the winner," announces Carl, "is . . . oh boy, this isn't surprising. The gecko!" Tanya jumps in the air and smiles. Trophies are collected onstage. Photos are taken. Life is good.


A few hours beforehand, I'd spoken to the head judge, Mike Siderio, an industry legend and native of Wildwood, New Jersey, bearing a faint resemblance to the love child of Richard Petty and Tom Cruise, who discusses tattooing with the vigor of a Siberian husky approaching newly fallen snow.


I asked him about his scoring strategy.


"You've got to leave a little room at the top," he said, crossing his arms across his chest. "You can't just give a ten to the first thing you see."



Perhaps no type of competition on earth selected its victors more elegantly than gladiator fights in ancient Rome, but todayÕs tournaments require more nuanced measurements than ÒWho is still alive?Ó Sporting activities with objective winners use values like speed, distance, and weight-hence, the Olympic motto Citius, Altius, Fortius, which is Latin for ÒFaster, Higher, Stronger.Ó (Being all three of these in ancient Rome conferred a fourth distinction: ÒAliver.Ó)


Today, to see the margin of a sprinter's victories, we can use a device like a laser at the finish line that speaks only the universal language of math and is therefore our friend. But as the components influencing victor selection move from robotic calculation to subjectivity-from "who was fastest" to "was that traveling" to "which evening gown was fiercest"-the number of opinion-based judgments outside the contestants' control increases, transforming the winner from indisputable best to judges' favorite.


Waiting until each contender has been seen to render a verdict-like the judges evaluating those tattoos-is called "end of sequence" judging, which typically favors the final entries. When we look at a sequence of items, our attention snaps to whatever is interesting and shiny about each new thing; even if that feature isn't terribly noteworthy, it's what we notice and appreciate in the moment. As a result, the first things get the short end of the stick. When viewing entries for Best in Show, Mike Siderio couldn't have looked at that first tattoo and said, "We'll never see another tattoo in the next twenty minutes with such accurate, detailed lines!" When someone in middle school asks you out, there's no way to gauge that date against all future nights ending in vague suggestions for future plans. Newbie house hunters can never exclaim, "This will be the only house we'll ever see in our price range with a decent yard!" It's the last contestants, tattoos, and songs that make us shriek with pleasure. "Those gecko hands!" indeed.


If we don't wait until the end, we engage in step-by-step judging, rendering verdicts piecemeal and rating each item as it comes up. (My mother has invented a third alternative-judging everything before having seen anything-which appears to be largely lacking in diagnostic validity.) Artistic sports with subjectively scored elements like diving, synchronized swimming, and gymnastics use this method, evaluating each performance after it ends. Lots of life's little auditions also do this, sizing up your first-date cardigan, Rutgers application, or slapdash entry to the science fair right then and there.


Because appearing toward the end increases your chances-making others judge your term paper, job interview, or first-date skills more favorably-victory can depend on where you fall in that person's schedule, something outside of your control and subject to luck.


One analysis of the 1994-2004 European figure-skating championships found that the final performers had a 14 percent chance of winning, whereas the odds of the first skater emerging victorious was a mere 3 percent. At the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, Michelle Kwan was considered the top contender on the U.S. figure-skating team. Her closest rival, Tara Lipinski, was her junior by two years. While Kwan looked the part, the New York Times said that Lipinski's outfit for the long skate that year conveyed a very specific image: "I'm going to my first Communion and I intend to yodel."


Kwan's flawless performance in the long program in Nagano failed to get gold-medal-worthy scores because perfection, when appearing too early in the night, does not get perfect marks. Lipinski skated later. Just two years after finishing fifth in the junior world championships, Lipinski became the youngest woman to walk away with the gold medal, pulling off the biggest upset in figure-skating history.


A month beforehand, Kwan had been given a stream of perfect 6.0s at the national championships. For the same performance later at the Olympics, judges gave her a 5.9 for presentation. Just imagine being a judge in Nagano, Japan. How could you see one figure-skating performance and declare it the absolute best? You'd behave like the tattoo judge Mike Siderio, giving it a high score and leaving some room at the top, just in case you were truly floored later. And then, when you saw those later performances and tattoos, you'd be unduly impressed by whatever they bring to the table that nothing else has.



The benefits of performing later have consistently been found in competitions using step-by-step judging as diverse as a Nebraska state high school gymnastics meet, the Eurovision Song Contest, the World Championship in Synchronized Swimming, and the Queen Elizabeth competition for classical violin and piano.


Scorecards are predictable because order influences the context of judgments. Our lazy brains make use of whatever information, ideas, processing power, and emotions are most accessible at that moment. We judge early entries against what's most available to our brains at the time: our perfect ideals, crafted by a lifetime of wishing and learning, because we have no idea what awaits us in the actual pool of applicants. Over time, the context changes as we get an idea of what's actually out there. We may spend our twenties searching for a triathlete/CEO/philanthropist/underwear model to settle down with, but by our late thirties we may be willing to settle for someone who isn't legally obligated to inform his neighbors whenever he moves. We dream of hiring the COO of Snapchat while writing a job ad, but soon become smitten by each literate letter from an applicant who isn't trying to sell SEO optimization. Scoring talent competitions and tattoo contests mimics the rest of life: Eventually, we lower our expectations-without even realizing that we're doing it-if we'd like to leave without crying.


The Bigger Takeaway: Our Brains Are Lazy


Sometimes, the last competitors don't get lucky. In 2010, three researchers from Columbia University in New York and Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba, Israel, examined an Israeli parole board's rulings over the course of ten months. To avoid any conflicts of interest, the judge, the social worker, and the criminologist on the board weren't aware of which cases they were going to see before that day, so they had to take in the entirety of each case at once. Evaluating between fourteen and thirty-five cases per day only gave them an average of six minutes per case. Food divided their day into three discrete parts, with breaks for a late morning snack around 10:00 a.m. and a lunch around 1:00 p.m.


After crunching the data on 1,112 rulings, researchers didn't have to look far to find visible patterns.


The board was most likely to grant parole at the beginning of the day and immediately after the two breaks. When freshly seated in court, judges ruled in favor of the prisoners in 65 percent of the cases, and over the next few hours the likelihood of their granting parole fell to nearly 0 percent. Researchers accounted for potentially complicating factors and found that the chances of getting parole had nothing to do with a prisoner's gender or ethnicity or the severity of the crime. They also ruled out personal biases, because these numbers were crunched from two parole boards without quotas to meet that had seen the prisoners at random. The biggest factor determining a prisoner's fate was simply how much time had passed since the judges' last break.


In the Olympics and the nineteenth annual Motor City Tattoo Expo, the last contestants got lucky, but at the Israeli parole board, the last ones got screwed. Knowing why this happens is one of the most important things we can learn about our luck.


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. In one famous study, psychologists played with fire by toying with hungry college students, telling subjects to not eat for at least three hours before an experiment that they were told was about taste perception. Two bowls were placed in the lab (which, the researchers note, was filled with "the delicious aroma of fresh chocolate and baking"). One bowl was piled with freshly baked chocolate chip cookies and chocolates; the other one held red and white radishes.


After placing students onto either Team Radish or Team Chocolate, the experimenter left the hungry undergrads alone for five minutes to eat two or three of the food items from their assigned bowls. Subjects completed questionnaires testing their mood, waited for fifteen minutes, and were then asked to complete an allegedly unrelated puzzle to analyze their problem-solving savvy. They were given ample pencils and pieces of paper for multiple attempts and access to a bell they could ring if they gave up before actually finishing. There was just one caveat: The puzzle-which required students to trace a geometric shape in one stroke, with no pencil lifting or line retracing allowed-was impossible to solve. While members of Team Chocolate worked for nearly twenty minutes, the students on Team Radish only tolerated eight minutes of this madness before ringing the bell.

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