Karla Starr set out to learn “Why Some People Seem to Win More Often Than Others.” In her position, I believe I would have done the same thing: Her research was spurred by a series of epic bad luck, including serious injury and financial ruin. Can You Learn to Be Lucky? Before reading the book, I would have said yes, and I would have said that that attitude of trying to turn disaster into a learning opportunity is fundamental to the process. Now that I’ve read the book, it’s nice to know that research backs that up. Others might appreciate that the book focuses on hard data and neuroscience more than it does on pop psychology.
From my perspective as an extreme, off-the-charts optimist, the majority of this book would seem to resonate with a more pessimistic viewpoint. Guess what? Humans are subject to many layers of profound bias of varying types, and certain rare specimens benefit from that, leading lucky lives without hardly trying. A fixed mindset would skim through this material, sigh heavily, and resign itself to mediocrity. It would take a highlighter pen or call-out boxes to turn this book into a motivational handbook, but it could be done.
(There’s room in this world for Karla Starr calendars, t-shirts, and mugs!)
There are always at least two ways to tell the same person’s life story and have it still be true. You can make bullet points of all the person’s worst moments, crises, disappointments, tragedies, losses, and rejection, also calling forth this sad individual’s character flaws, blunders, and failings. Then, you can highlight the same person’s good fortune, privilege, support network, gifts, merits, charms, good deeds, and serendipitous connections, meticulously detailing the benefits of having this person around. It takes imagination to find that thread, but it’s there for everyone. The trouble is that we as humans despise being reminded of our privilege and resent having to cough up a little bit of gratitude for how great our lives really are.
[Here I note that I looked the author up on Twitter, and almost every mention of her book that popped up was snarky, sarcastic, and exactly the kind of attitude that would personally cause me to write off that individual from my favors-and-references list. Sarcastic people cannot possibly have any idea how many opportunities they lose through their mean remarks].
Can You Learn to Be Lucky? It depends on how you define ‘luck,’ doesn’t it? Are lottery winners lucky if they declare bankruptcy, get divorced, and can no longer trust their relatives or friends? Are celebrities lucky if they wind up in rehab or if their supposed friends betray all their secrets to the paparazzi? Just asking. But then there’s a difference between luck and good fortune.
This book is full of truly fascinating research. Two things I learned: There are two different types of dopamine receptors, explaining why some people are more motivated by rewards and others by avoiding punishment; there is a thing called ‘allostatic load’ that represents cumulative stress and trauma. With the way neuroscience is growing as a field, maybe one day we’ll simply be able to put on a brain-scanning helmet that will show us the seats of our pessimism and intellectual laziness, lighting up to demonstrate when a mental shift is moving in a more effective direction. A lucky one.
Can You Learn to Be Lucky? is a tour de force. It’s a book that deserves to be taught in schools. We can only hope that Karla Starr feels as lucky to have found her agent, her editor, and her publisher as we do, having found her book.
Cultures set the stage for our beliefs about how much we can control life.
Our brains are lazy and our time limited, so as we get more options, we become more superficial—about everything.
Confidence... makes it infinitely easier to be lucky.
Being lucky depends on saying yes to life.
Why not assume good things about others and your future? That things will turn out well? That someone has your back? Isn’t it more illogical to deny yourself the benefits of simply shifting your attitude?
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.