Can You Learn to Be Lucky? Karla Starr Says Yes.

Karla Starr

How’s this for luck: leaving PDX Airport, I happened to select a shared Lyft at just the right moment and found myself on the ride with a smart, savvy, NYC-based journalist who would quickly become a good friend: Karla Starr.

Karla’s first book, Can You Learn to Be Lucky?, was a smash success, named as one of the Top 10 books of the year by Fast Company and hailed by every nonfiction business-psychology author you’ve heard of as a must-read.

In our conversations, I’m always impressed with her curiosity, thoughtfulness, and research-backed assertions. And, lucky us!, she’s coming to Pregame HQ this month to tell us exactly what luck is and how we can use it in the pursuit of our business and life goals.

In anticipation of Karla’s talk at Pregame, I asked her to share more about the nature of luck and how we can make it work for our own success in life, business, and community.

Why is luck such an attractive concept in our culture?

It’s a pretty attractive concept in every culture, but it gets packaged differently around the world. It’s a way people assign causality when they can’t quite understand how something really good or bad happened.

“Something really good or bad happening because of an unseen force” also gets chalked up to religion a lot, but that depends on what religious beliefs are considered normal in your culture, and what sorts of things that your deities can control.

So, if it rains, and that’s an awesome thing: God did it. The universe did it. The rain gods did it. Meteorological forces did it. If it’s an unknown force with no agenda, it’s luck.

Being able to summon unknown, powerful forces with no real agenda? Every culture wants a piece of that.

What do most people get wrong about luck?

A lot of people hold the “gambling or inheritance” view of luck: it only applies to really extreme events where the entire outcome is totally random. But when you look at any good or bad event, plenty of the elements responsible for making that happen were entirely out of your control.

Every aspect of life is governed by millions of tiny, unseen influences. All “and this is how we met!” stories have an element of chance. Jobs, friends, fun vacation stories—the best stuff comes from luck.

But everyday stuff also happen randomly. Right now, I’m eating yogurt because it was on sale in my supermarket, and I ultimately live near this market because an old college friend let me sublet her place years ago, and we kept in touch because—you see? There are so many elements of life beyond our control that I think most people deny it because it can get very overwhelming, very fast.

How did you get the idea for this book?

I was reading two books at once: Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, and The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. The Black Swan discusses how much randomness and probability permeate our lives and success, while Outliers seems to define extreme success or failure as a perfect storm of events and people. I wanted the answer in between: given how much of the world is random and beyond our control, what can we do to create this perfect storm of events?

When I got that idea, I was unemployed and living on my mother’s couch. So essentially, I wrote the book I needed to get out of that situation.

Pregame is all about creating your own success. How can we increase our chances of success?

I think it’s helpful to look at success as a combination of factors that have to come together—and you’re only as good as your weakest link. For luck, I talk about it as a perfect storm: someone in the right place, at the right time, who gets and makes the most of an opportunity.

You might think “I’ve been an actor/cartoonist for nearly 10 years, but still have a day job. What am I doing wrong?” If you just think about going on more auditions, you’re only looking at one aspect. Are you taking classes, getting feedback, and working on being, in the words of Steve Martin, “so good they can’t ignore you”? Are you auditioning in New York or L.A., where you can actually make a living as an actor? Are you working on your website, your reel? Meeting new people? Keeping in touch with people you’ve worked with? Look at every possible factor. Everything counts.

How does the concept of luck apply to starting or growing a business?

There’s a lot of research showing that successful entrepreneurs have a higher tolerance for risk, are more optimistic, and have diverse social networks. In other words, they’re more likely to keep going until things line up and they become successful—however you want to define that.

I call this the “luck paradox.” Yes, random external factors exist that can completely change our lives. But overall, it’s in our best interest to not believe that luck exists—that it’s something we have to make on our own—because this increases our motivation to get off our butt and do all the things we need to do.

How did you approach researching such a multilayered concept?

I started looking at concepts of randomness in math, and many moons later ended up in neuroscience. The first chapter shows the science of decision-making and evaluation that explain why people who perform last are more likely to win the Olympics and American Idol. By the end of the book, you know how to put yourself in that very position and become the default, or obvious choice and get picked for an opportunity. My ultimate filtering process was road testing: I turned myself into a guinea pig and ended up writing about the things that were most useful.

What’s your advice for those who are working on their own nonfiction books?

Everyone has different talents and blind spots going into the process, so people need to learn different things. The best advice is to figure out what you need to learn, and the only way to do that is to just get started.

It doesn’t matter if you’re “doing it right”—because there is no such thing—as long as it’s getting done. I was stuck at first because I was overwhelmed, so I took a step back and reverse engineered a few books in this genre that I idolized.

First, I broke it down by chapters: how can I summarize this chapter in a sentence? That helped me see how the overall book developed. Then, I broke down each chapter into parts. For example, one chapter might say: “intro anecdote [2 pages]; relevant study [1 page]; interview with expert [1/2 page]; historical example…”

Eventually, you’ll start to see patterns and understand how your favorite books are constructed. Once you have these ingredients, you can mix them up and focus on tackling individual chunks. Lather, rinse, repeat, keep going… eventually you’ll finish writing a book.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on a project with Chip Heath, one of my favorite authors. I’m telling you, the stuff in my book works. You really can learn to be lucky.


Explore Karla’s work at www.kstarr.com.

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