in: Behavior, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: September 30, 2021

Podcast #490: Can You Learn to Be Lucky?

There’s no doubt that luck plays a role in how successful we are in life, but the more we believe in luck, the less motivated we feel to proactively go after our goals. How do we navigate this paradox around luck — acknowledging the influence of chance but not letting it demoralize us?

My guest today argues the answer lies in seeing life more like playing a game of poker than pulling the handle of a slot machine. Her name is Karla Starr and she’s the author of Can You Learn to Be Lucky? Why Some People Seem to Win More Often Than Others.

Today on the show Karla argues that no matter what hand you’re dealt in life, there are still many things you have control over that you can influence to make your own “luck.” We talk about how the things that come down to chance, like the timing of a job interview, how physically attractive you are, and whether you have more or less resilient genes can be influenced or counteracted by our own proactive behaviors so that more opportunities in life fall our way.

Show Highlights

  • What is luck?
  • So do we have more control than we think we do? How much of a factor is luck, really?
  • Are all cognitive biases bad? 
  • Why life is more like poker than a slot machine
  • How to influence fortuitous timing for your benefit
  • The power and importance of first impressions
  • Using the mere-exposure effect to your benefit 
  • The role of luck (and personality) in dating and relationships 
  • How physical attractiveness impacts your life (and how to make yourself more attractive no matter what you look like) 
  • Developing and increasing your confidence 
  • Why Olympic winners and successful entrepreneurs are often just lucky (and what Average Joes can replicate from their stories) 
  • The importance of finding the work you’re suited for
  • Why simply believing in luck can help you out 

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

Book cover page of "Can you learn to be Lucky" by Karla Star.

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. There is no doubt that luck plays a role in how successful we are in life, but the more we believe in luck, the less motivated we feel to proactively go after our goals. So how do we navigate this paradox around luck acknowledging the influence of chance but not letting it demoralize us? I guess they argue that the answer lies in seeing life more like playing a game of poker and pulling the handle of a slot machine.

Her name is Karla Starr. She’s the author of Can You Learn To Be Lucky: Why Some People Seem To Win More Often Than Others. Today on the show Karla argues that no matter what hand you’re dealt in life there is still many things you have control over that you can influence to make your own luck. She’s going to talk about how the things that come down to chance like the timing of a job interview, how physically attractive you are, whether you have more or less . . . genes can be influenced or counteracted by our own proactive behaviors that more opportunities in life fall our way. After the show’s over check out our show notes at AOM.IS/lucky. Karla Starr, welcome to the show.

Karla Starr: Thank you so much for having me.

Brett McKay: So you wrote a book, Can You Learn To Be More Lucky. I’m curious, what got you thinking about luck? Was there an event in your life where you’re like, “I need to look more into this.”

Karla Starr: Yes. It was 10 years ago. I was living in Buenos Aires for a few years and then I moved back to the States, Portland, Oregon right around the height of the Great Recession, and it just seemed like there was so much randomness and chaos everywhere around me. Who was unemployed? What was going on? So I just wanted to study the one underlying thing that would help me improve as many aspects of my life and help me kind of wrap my head around what was going on.

Brett McKay: So when you talk about luck, how are you defining luck in your book?

Karla Starr: People say that something is due to luck when we say that it’s caused by something that’s external, unpredictable, or outside of our control. So this might be the case. Maybe we lost a game because the ref made a bad call or we didn’t get a part because the director didn’t like our shirt, but the problem is that people usually make the shift from I can do something about this to oh, it’s out of my hands way too early.

This is partly because our brains are fundamentally lazy, right? We’re always looking for a shortcut and it’s easier to just change our goal and say, “Oh, that’s good enough,” than it is to try harder. But this is also really to save our ego. So if we think that we lost the game because of this bad call, we can still tell ourselves like, no, we’re really better. It was just bad thing that happened.

So in other words, when people start blaming luck, they’re making this shift from I can do something. This is an internal cause to an external cause, which means that they’re giving up personal responsibility and really making an excuse. So overall, while it does make sense to say that luck exists, the more often we blame it, the less motivated we are to examine our contribution, our part in how things happened. Overall, that leads to worse outcomes. It takes more energy to see your part and change but there’s always something you can do.

Brett McKay: So when you say can we learn to be lucky, what does that mean? So if these things are outside of our control, do we have more control than we think we do?

Karla Starr: Absolutely. That’s one of the huge things. It’s one of the huge things in the book is that people’s, their overall life goals and the way that we manage to accomplish things that we set out to do, there’s pretty much a direct correlation between how much control we think we have and whether or not people actually accomplish their objectives. Part of that is because the whole idea of thinking that we can control things like we become more likely to persist, we become more likely to look at our part in things, and there’s always something we can do even if it’s just trying again.

So I think the other part of it is luck is essentially just when everything goes right. I think people under-look at this idea because for the most part things go pretty well. We don’t always appreciate that, so it’s also just kind of being able to capitalize on just the randomness and be open to things. So there are a lot of different ways to conceptualizes it, which is one of the reasons it can be a little tricky, but overall, knowing that we can control things or knowing that there’s something that we can do about it, that’s really adaptive because the second that we think something is uncontrollable, that actually makes it stressful and it actually reduces our motivation to even work on something.

Brett McKay: So the idea is it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. If you think things are going to go your way and you take action to make things go your way, things that you otherwise would have attributed to luck if things didn’t go your way, you say, “Well no, I can actually do this and I actually can influence that more than most people think.”

Karla Starr: Yes, 100%. There’s another theme in the book is this idea of positive illusions. So people think cognitive biases are all bad, they’re all just these weird shortcuts that our brain takes, but there’s actually one family of cognitive biases that’s completely adaptive and it’s called positive illusions.

So that’s things like optimism and competence, and these are all completely adaptive and lead to better life outcomes to the extent that they promote all directed action. So if you think I can work really hard and make my dream come true, then guess what? You’re going to work hard and your dreams are more likely to come true.

Brett McKay: I think another thing we’ll delve deeper in here when we talk about specific things that you can do to get more lucky or get luckier, is that there are things that people would otherwise attribute to luck are actually attributable to luck, right? Like timing or things like that, but you show ways that you can influence that in your direction.

Karla Starr: Right. Right, so like timing, that’s something that generally it’s out of our control, but I think once you kind of look at the other side of the coin and you look at people’s decision making process and you kind of understand why it is that they’re more likely to do something at a certain time, I think that can just really help us understand the mechanisms and that can help us hack it.

Brett McKay: Yeah. I think what you’re trying to do is increase, there’s always a continual like skill or luck or randomness. What you’re trying to do is increase the luck or you’re trying to increase the skill part of it, right, and reduce luck?

Karla Starr: Yes, 100%. I have this spectrum that I use when I give talks sometimes. People think of luck, they might just think oh, it’s a slot machine, right? That’s kind of what life is, you just go up to it, you press a little button and whatever happens, happens. Really a much better metaphor for life or all these things is poker. You don’t necessarily have control over the cards that you were dealt. However, poker, there are skills that you can learn to become a better poker player, so regardless of the hand you were actually dealt, we can learn how to play it better.

Brett McKay: Right, and so this is what this book kind of gets at. It’s recognizing that luck does play a role but there are places or things we can do where we can influence things a bit more. So let’s get into specifics because I thought it was really interesting. Let’s talk about some of the significance of that. So let’s talk about, well, first this. What do you think is the overarching principle of all these ideas you highlight in the book where we can tilt luck more into our favor?

Karla Starr: I think negative, unpredictable things or random things that have a predictably self defeating influence on our behavior, so pretty much the brain is lazy. We are lazy. We are always motivated to do less whenever we can, so if we think it’s not worth it to try a little harder, we won’t try a little harder and then we prove ourselves right. So overall I think motivation, motivation to persist, motivation to get better, competence, social skills, pretty much is entirely contingent on motivation.

Brett McKay: So let’s talk about how timing can influence the outcomes of whether we get a job, whether we win a contest. Take like a job, we think well, I got the job because I had the resume, I impressed the people in the interview, I’ve got the skills, but you highlight research that sometimes that’s not the case. Sometimes you get the job because you showed up at a certain time during the day when they were doing interviews.

Karla Starr: 100%. It could be the time of day you showed up at. It could be oh, you happened to wear a green tie and the person who had this job that you’re interviewing for used to wear green ties all the time and he was kind of a jerk, you know? So you subconsciously you remind the interviewer of that person. So there are all these very small things that can influence your chances of success in one way or another that have absolutely nothing to do with your merit as an applicant.

Brett McKay: Well, you also highlight a lot of research showing that … You did talk about the Westminster Dog Show as an example or even a tattoo contest, and what you found was, what the researchers have found is that the people who are last in the contest to be judged, they typically win. What’s going on there? Why do those people typically win?

Karla Starr: So if you think about what happens when we think about say a series of things over the course of a night, if you’re looking at like an Olympic contest, the first thing you see, what you’re really doing is you’re grading those against the ideals that are in your head. You’re kind of going to be a little more critical of them and you’re always going to leave a little room at the top because you never really know what else you’re going to go there.

However, what happens as you go along and as you see more performances or more tattoos, the context in which you are evaluating things shifts. So what you’re doing as you go along further in the night is you’re not comparing them to the ideals in your head, but you’re comparing them unfortunately when they don’t realize this, you’re comparing them to the other things you’ve already seen.

So by the time you get to the last tattoo or song or whatever, they’re able to point out the unique qualities that that thing has that nothing else you’ve seen before has and then you’re also able to just say, “Wow, that was the best jump we’ve seen throughout the night.” Whereas the first performance you saw you were not able to say, “Wow, this is the only performance we will see where this person executed that jump perfectly.”

Brett McKay: No. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. The other thing going for you if you go last is they remember you more because you’re the last thing they saw.

Karla Starr: Absolutely. They mistake the vividness of the memory as sort of idea of the quality of how good it was, right? So you think oh, well if it was really good it would be really memorable. It would be really vivid, when actually it’s just timing and the recency effect.

Brett McKay: So in the case of something like a job interview, luck might determine when you have the interview, so the timing component is out of your hands, despite that, what can you do to help influence the outcome?

Karla Starr: Well, one thing I think is really robust is to just try to remind other people of the ways that you, remind of the things that you have in common with other people who have succeeded in that position beforehand. What you want to do is you want to make it as easy as possible for other people to see you in that position regardless of where you go.

Brett McKay: Go you. So yeah, so if you can’t influence whether you’re the first or the last one to go, if you’re the first one you try to be as memorable as possible by doing something like you just said or even just yeah, being memorable.

Karla Starr: Right, and I think also the timing throughout the day can be kind of tricky because you might have your interview right at the end of the day or right at the beginning of the day. However, it really depends on when that person has decided and we’re not always privy to that information. They might decide at the end of the day on Tuesday, so then it doesn’t matter when you go on Wednesday. They’ve already kind of made up their mind.

Brett McKay: So yeah. In that case, so this is useful to know because you might have all the credentials, you might have what it takes to do the job. You don’t get it and it might not because, it might be because you interviewed at the wrong time and that’s it. You shouldn’t get too down on yourself.

Karla Starr: Absolutely. I hear this from people all the time, “Oh, I really want to switch careers and get into this line of work but I applied and they didn’t take me.” That is one data point and I can say after researching all these things for 10 years, just fundamentally this book has made me so much more resilient and just so much more optimistic because when you realize how obscure or how random some of these, the things that influence people’s decision making process can be, you’ll realize, no, it’s not always about you.

Brett McKay: Let’s talk about more on this decision making process that we think is luck but we can actually influence it a bit. So when we go to a job interview or we apply for a job, we think the decision maker is being super rational. They’re looking right at our credentials and they’re making this analytical choice because they say well, we need X, X for the job and this person has X, X so we’re going to hire them, but you make the case that no, that’s not how we really make decisions. Humans often make decisions in their gut first and then after the fact they come up with the rational reasons.

I remember talking to Michael . . . He wrote the book about success and luck and talent and luck and he gave this example that going in place and his real life example was he went to go in, interview for this job. There was a lot of competition and he happened to see that the interviewer had a Washington Redskins trashcan. He just said, “Oh, I love the Washington Redskins too,” and they had this talk about Washington Redskins. Nothing came about his credentials but he still got the job. It was just one of those cases where he lucked out. This guy was also a Washington Redskins fan and he got the job because of it.

Karla Starr: Oh yeah, that happens all the time.

Brett McKay: So what do you do if you’re applying for a job and you know this is happening, that people are making decisions with their gut first because they might see you and they like, okay, like you said, you remind that person of their ex or their crazy uncle and immediately they’re like, “No, not this guy. We’re not hiring this guy.” What can you do knowing that that’s happening to kind of tilt luck more towards your favor?

Karla Starr: I think it’s important to remember that it’s fundamentally this process of us gathering information and then sort of weighing the costs and benefits of the pros and cons, so it’s really important to remember that the first piece of information or the initial pieces of information that people get about you are the most informative and they kind of end up skewing how people filter the rest of the information that they get about you.

That is why it is so much easier to get a job through connections, because then it’s, “Oh, well Dan recommended this person, therefore Dan’s a good guy, therefore we’re going to look at the rest of this person’s application or resume through that positive lens.” Or “Oh, this person came recommended to us through this agency or through this common LinkedIn connection or oh, we saw this person’s, this one project that they did that really stood out,” so they’re going to look at everything else in a really positive light.

Brett McKay: All right, so build that network up.

Karla Starr: Build that network. Yes, it’s huge and also just whatever you can do to not just be one in the pile.

Brett McKay: Right. Another thing that can influence whether, sort of a continuation of what we were talking about is so if someone just likes you, they’re more likely to pick you for a job, accept your pitch, go on a date with you, but what’s interesting, you highlight research that sometimes what causes people to like us is that they just see us a lot. First impression has a big sway, can influence things for longterm, but over time as that person sees you over and over again, they start liking you and they’re more willing to go with you if they have to make a decision that involves you.

Karla Starr: Absolutely. So it’s called the mere exposure effect. The whole idea that mere exposure or temporal exposure can make us like somebody more overtime because we get a chance to constantly see that person and then it’s just essentially learning process where we’re learning to associate this one person with nothing bad happening. So in evolution it’s this idea that whatever is familiar hasn’t eaten you yet, so the more you see somebody, the more safe they appear, the less risky they appear and then also you just have more opportunities to collect information and find good information about somebody.

But this is also really, it’s a good example of why it’s so important, why first impressions are so key because if the first impression that someone gets about you or the first interaction that someone has with you is negative, then what are they going to do? Well, they’re just going to assume oh, this person is a jerk. Then they’re going to filter you and the rest of your actions through that lens. So usually seeing someone over and over, it usually is positive because we repeat actions or we repeat interactions if they are positive and work pretty much for the most part fundamentally motivated to maintain good relationships with the people we see.

Brett McKay: So this is the proximity effect. Does it have to be like, you have to be physically close, like see this person physically, meet space we’ll call it, for this effect to happen or can this happen online as well?

Karla Starr: Well, definitely physically, it’s just safer because we get context, things are interactive, we kind of are more motivated to have the positive impressions in-person, whereas if somebody just sees you online, I think social media is, it’s actually really kind of dangerous for this because people are, we’re always just putting up these very filtered kind of curated impressions of ourselves, so there’s this whole idea of the ideal self where we’ll like people and we’re even willing to like people if we think they may be a little better than us, but if we feel that they’ve exceeded that, maybe if they’re showboating or something, that’s when jealousy can get involved.

I think that’s one of the reasons why social media can be so tricky, because we don’t really see the whole, the nuance or the context. We don’t realize oh, this is just this one awesome moment in this person’s month and we should be happy for them that they are on this awesome trip because other awful things happened to them.

Brett McKay: Right. So what can we do knowing that? If the mere exposure effect plays a role in whether people like us or not, what can we do say if you’re looking for a job or this can also work in romantic life as well?

Karla Starr: I think this is actually one of the interesting things that I’ve also uncovered in the research is I think that people really over-emphasize the impact of luck or the impact of this one interaction or this one thing that led to this host of other things. Really personality traits or character strengths that we can develop are really predictive of overall life outcomes because it’s not just that one thing. It’s oh, this person made 100 contacts and it happened to be that one that ended up paying off.

Or oh, this person is involved in that many social groups and they have this large of a social network, and that is how they’re able to finally meet the person who ended up becoming their significant other.

Brett McKay: All right, so yeah, the takeaway, get out there, mix it up with people in real life.

Karla Starr: Yeah. One thing that this relationship research told me, he said that people, they think about online dating and it’s really just a numbers game. That can make people become a little jaded and when in fact most successful longterm relationship happen between people who have already known each other for a long time.

Brett McKay: Yeah, we had him on the podcast. He talked about his research. That was really interesting, yeah, that most people, they end up, who they end up marrying or whatever, they worked with them or they were a friend for years as opposed to they just found each other on Tinder or whatever.

Karla Starr: Yes, by far, absolutely. You get, you know, it’s the whole fact finding thing. You just are able to collect more information about the person and then you get to know somebody before you decide should you be in a relationship with them or not, as opposed to just is their face cute, you know? Physical appearance is important to be attracted to somebody, but there’s this huge personality effect on how attractive we find somebody. So over time as you get to know somebody, personality is definitely what can change a seven to a 10 or a seven to a three.

Brett McKay: No. Yeah. You talked about research where they had students in a classroom rate each other, like physical attractiveness, at the beginning of the semester and the ratings were what you’d expect. The objectively attractive people were nines and 10s or whatever, but at the end of the year, the end of the semester, they did the rating again and who was ranked the most physically … It was all over the place because people got to know each other and some personalities clicked and they found that personality more attractive and that influenced … They brought that in as a factor into the physical attractiveness.

Karla Starr: Absolutely. So it’s just kind of like is this person a 10 or not? Well, it depends on how much information you have about them. So when you first meet somebody, the only information that you have about them is their physical appearance, but when you kind of get to know and see somebody in all their complexity, that one number actually has so many more variables behind it.

Brett McKay: Well, so let’s kind of continue that sort of physical attractiveness because you talk about this in the research, that people who are physically attractive tend to have a pretty great life. It’s not only just being physically attractive and people see you and they like you just because you’re physically attractive, but it also sort of like greases the wheels for pretty much the rest of their life in all facets of their life. Talk about that a little bit.

Karla Starr: Honestly I ended up just researching this for months and months because I was like this really can’t happen. This can’t be true, but life is so much easier for physically attractive people in so many aspects. When they get arrested and when they’re on trial, they’re more likely to be found not guilty. They’re more likely to be given lighter sentences. The only case that they’re actually penalized in the legal system is when juries figure that they used their appearance as a weapon, so in cases of fraud for example. Just fundamentally, physically attractive people have better genes so are more, just from an evolutionary standpoint, we’re more motivated to bond with them.

They seem to be free of pathogens and sex influences like how much money we give them and these economic trust games, that influences social interactions in general because just imagine everybody is always coming up to you and they’re always being super nice to you and so you just over time you feel like you have a larger sense of social supports and your self esteem tends to be higher. You just, you really get graded on a curve for everything for your entire life. Even students create or teachers give students higher grades on essays when they are attractive students. So it’s all these things that you would not really even expect or like why would a teacher give a cute kid a higher grade? That kind of seems weird, but that actually happens.

Brett McKay: No, I thought the really interesting point that I never thought about is if you’re physically attractive, as you said, people just are nice to you. They’re more willing to cut you a break and whatever, but that will influence how you will interact with the world. You go out in the world with this sort of optimistic bias that this person’s a friend. He’s going to be a friend of mine. The universe is going to work for me as opposed to if you didn’t have that going for you where you’re always looking for threats and people treating you like garbage, if you lived that your entire life, that can be a big boon to you.

Karla Starr: Oh, it’s huge. I feel like just personally the more physically attractive people I know are also the ones who, they take more risks, go on these trips or they’ll move somewhere and they’ll pursue their dreams. Why? Because they know that if they kind of get all their stuff together and they pack up and they move to the other side of the country it will be that much easier for them to make friends and have a new social group. So this is kind of like wherever they go there’s going to be a safety net for them and they just have that much more of a robust sense of that whereas opposed to people who are they’re in their own hometown. They’re like, “You know what? Why bother? It’s just that much harder.”

So it’s just one of those things. They’re lucky. Physically attractive people are lucky because they get this good social stuff coming to them all the time. However, what that does is that ends up influencing what they bring to the table, right? So they’re going to be a little friendlier, they’re going to be a little outgoing, so that is what they’re bringing to the table. However, they’re bringing that to the table because of this, with more positive history of experiences.

Brett McKay: Right, so physical attractiveness, that’s like pure randomness, right? That’s just genes, whether the parents you had and how the genes interacted with each other to make you, so what do you do if you got the short end of the physical attractiveness stick?

Karla Starr: Well, interestingly enough, I’m glad you brought this up, 50% of how we tend to rate other people in physical attractiveness is this component called grooming. So I don’t know if you’ve ever Googled or looked up if celebrities were like us. They have these pictures of things like Beyonce and Jay-Z and they’re wearing these hideous clothes and they’re a little bit chubby and their hair is kind of gross. It’s kind of like what Brittany Spears or Cameron Diaz would look like if they were in the Midwest.

It is really funny. It’s like oh, they have the same face, but it’s just the rest of them, you know? It’s not just their face but what they’re doing with the rest of it. So are they in good shape? What kind of clothes are they wearing? What was their hair like? Are they well groomed? So there is a lot you can do with that and I think that’s another one of those things where kind of like the math defect, the rich get richer. I think that people who have a more positive history of being told like, “Oh, you’re attractive,” they’re more willing to kind of make the most of what they have or if other people who are maybe a little more self conscious about their appearance figure oh, why bother, you know?

So they won’t go to the gym. They won’t put any thought to what they’re wearing and people, whether or not we like to admit it, well, it’s kind of shallow, we’re all making these snap decisions about other people.

Brett McKay: So yeah, easy, just shower, shave, go to the gym. That’s stuff you can do.

Karla Starr: It’s stuff you can do, absolutely, and I think though I went shopping with a personal stylist and I spent some time with this woman who’s like a social coach, and so I actually started paying a little more attention to my clothes and my appearance, and I am absolutely, I continue to be dumbfounded in how much easier that makes social interactions and how much better people treat me. I think if they’re looking for a quick and easy way to just make their life better, by far that has the best ratio of cost and benefits of anything I’ve done.

Brett McKay: So another aspect of whether people get more lucky in life is if they just have this attitude that things are going to work their way. They have confidence. A lot of people think that you either have confidence or you don’t, you’re born with it or you’re not, but you say no, that’s not the case. You can actually develop your confidence.

Karla Starr: Oh, absolutely. You can develop your confidence in any aspect of your life. I think confidence is really us knowing that you know what? Things will be okay. If they don’t work out things won’t go to hell in a hand basket. I think a lot of it has to do with attention, so it’s just how much attention do we give the potential rewards or how much attention do we pay to our mistakes? I notice now that people who are really confident, someone who’s really confident and say someone who is kind of anxious or insecure, they can go and do the same thing.

Say maybe they’ll go up to someone they’re attracted to and they’ll ask them out on a date. The person who is kind of more confident, they’ll be like, oh, if you said no, “Okay, thanks,” but they won’t crumble. They won’t kind of ruminate. They won’t obsess over it. They will realize that that is not in any sort of objective statement about their self worth, whereas someone whose kind of insecure, they might ruminate and get down on it and then obsess over that negative thing forever.

Brett McKay: So a confident person has that approach attitude towards rewards whereas unconfident, they have avoidance. Unconfident people, they fear the downsides more than they are going after the rewards, whereas confident people focus more on the rewards.

Karla Starr: Right, so less confident people, they have a more active what’s called a behavior inhibition system, which is like essentially just our brain putting the brakes on our behavior, where confident people, they’re all about approaching rewards and not really letting other things get in their way. So often if you look at it it’s really just us getting in our own way, you know? It’s our attitude, our anxieties or our obsession over this bad thing that’s going to happen and we’re so sure of it.

Brett McKay: No, but that’s another place where luck does play a role a little bit is our temperament is also determined by genetics often case. Neurotic people are neurotic often because they got neurotic parents and neurotic grandparents, so but even though that’s the case there’s still wiggle room for you to shape that though.

Karla Starr: Absolutely. I think that’s like one of the real cool things that I studied is that whenever we’re talking about oh, is it genes or is it something that we can learn, and those questions, the answer is really both, you know? It’s always both, so it’s maybe you do have the genes that make you learn from mistakes more easily than rewards, which is actually a potential thing because of all these different variabilities in our dopamine receptors, but it really is just attention and how much attention we pay to things.

So people who might have really anxious and neurotic parents, they might have those bad genes that make their dopamine receptors more likely to learn from mistakes, but then they also end up paying attention to those more. So it is possible absolutely to have this bad mix of genes, but then over time it just train yourself through meditation or mindfulness or just all these little things you can do like self affirmation studies, just focus on the good things and let yourself be guided by the rewards instead of just fearful of the potential bad things.

Brett McKay: So you also talk about Olympic athletes and we usually hold these guys up as paradigms of hard work. It wasn’t luck at all, but you highlight research, no, oftentimes luck plays a big role in first that these guys became Olympic athletes and then second that they got the gold medal instead of the silver medal. Talk about that.

Karla Starr: So I use Olympic athletes and expertise as sort of this example of, as you were saying before, in order to reach that huge kind of success, whether it’s for a startup or a musician or something, super good heights, it’s not just a matter of fact of one thing going right. It’s that absolutely every single thing has to go right. So for Olympic athletes for example, if you look at them, they happen to be people who fell in love with the sport that they happen to be genetically suited to when they were young enough.

Then they got great coaching so that by the time that they reached their physiological peak in their early twenties their skillset was also world class. Then along the way they were just mentally tough and they really believed in their abilities to continue getting better. They had no serious setbacks or illnesses or injuries, and then also when you look at game day, as you were saying before, the later on you go during the day, the more likely you are to be graded higher.

So even on game day timing can play a huge role. Then on game day also because you’re also dealing with … I factored the difference between silver and gold medal can just be just the fraction of a second, so everything on game day also has to go perfectly as well. Absolutely every single thing, I think of it as this race and all these different hurdles. You have to clear every single hurdle and not all of them are entirely up to you.

Brett McKay: No, right. So what can we take away from these guys? These average Joe’s, right, who want to tap into that same thing, that sort of luck that these guys tapped into, what can we learn from them?

Karla Starr: I think part of it is honestly just hanging out with more positive people. I was actually just listening to this interview I did with someone who studied coaching and athletes at all different levels and he said that so much of it comes out of these group settings. People, they don’t just kind of magically think like oh, I’m going to be an Olympic athlete. It’s that they hang out with other people who are really positive and just inspire them to work harder instead of these Olympic athletes, most likely their best friends are not the guys who are saying, “Oh God, you’re going to the gym? Come on. Come over, let’s play a game.”

So part of it is group settings and just making sure you hang out with people that you admire and want to be like, and then also just this steadfast belief in your ability to just get better. Just get a little bit better and have the mental resourcefulness to believe that no, you can do this. Whatever is in your control, you can kind of make that happen. I have this poster on my wall in my office I’m working in right now that says, “You can have results or excuses, but not both.” That is entirely true. I think the more excuses you make like oh, I can’t do this, the more you just set yourself up for failure or just not getting better. I always think you know what? However hard I think I have it, there’s someone out there who has had it even harder and they’ve gone even further than me.

Brett McKay: No, for sure. I think another takeaway I got from it as well is find the thing that suits you, right?

Karla Starr: Exactly. That was one of the things, I’m glad you brought that up, that’s pretty much the whole point of the chapter, Olympic athletes are also, they just have had the luck of finding something that they genuinely love. So I think when you find something that you genuinely love and then you focus on how good it feels to get better, then people often mistake their insane dedication. They’re like, “Oh, how can they do that to themselves 10 hours a day?” But actually in talking to them, it does not feel like work to them at all.

That is so important because number one, it decreases people’s likelihood of burning out because they just genuinely love it and then … I have a story in there about Tony Hawk, after he and his friend won some major skateboarding competition they celebrated for a little bit, but then a half an hour later they were out in the back practicing new moves because they just, they loved it so much that it’s something they would have done in their free time anyways because they loved it so much. Then when you look at just the cumulative effect of all that practice, that adds up so much.

Brett McKay: No, it does, and I think this opens up the idea I think we have in America, this idea never quit. You keep going even if it’s hard, but the best thing to do might be to quit what you’re doing because it’s just not suited for you and find that thing that is suited for you.

Karla Starr: Yeah. I think that’s one of the really true key things because in studying all these good coaches or how much people improve over time, people can be late bloomers, maybe find their groove later one, however, you don’t really know that. It’s really tricky because there’s no good rule of thumb for should you keep doing this thing? Are you going to get really good or should you just quit? But I think a lot of it does just have to do with what do you really love?

I guess it just depends, what do you really love, what doesn’t feel like work and then also, what do you maybe realistically have a better chance of succeeding in? So those are sort of the tricky fields to negotiate, but I think it’s somewhere between those two.

Brett McKay: Right. No, yeah. That takes some practical wisdom to figure out. Another thing too that can increase our luck is just simply thinking that luck is on our side. Did you find any research that talks about that idea?

Karla Starr: Yeah. So there’s a lot of awesome research in performance psychology. People who, they have positive expectations or enhanced expectancies about the future, they end up just doing better across the board. There’s one study of people who had some sort of superstitious token. When they took a test they actually ended up performing better because they were less anxious. They were more confident.

So people who or even people who are religious and pray and then they believe God is on their side, they also have more confidence and they’re able to muster more energy and they genuinely believe that they can do the thing so they’re actually more likely to go out and do the thing. I think that people don’t realize how, it’s one of those things that’s very simple. It’s not easy but it’s very simple.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I’ve got my lucky tokens that I’ve got, my lucky pair of socks.

Karla Starr: Yeah, and I know there’s some coaches who think like oh, that’s stupid. You should be able to do that all on your own, but I feel like that’s ridiculous because if it helps you, why not? You know, why not use that?

Brett McKay: Yeah. No, for sure. We had an author on a few weeks ago talking about sports recovery and all these gizmos that have come out in the last few years, like cryotherapy and massage rollers. Basically the researcher said it doesn’t really do much but people think it does so as a result, it helps. It’s like the placebo effect and she was saying that’s fine. That’s okay. If sitting in a cryo-spa makes you feel good and makes you feel like you’re recovering and helps you perform better, do it.

Karla Starr: Absolutely, 100%. It’s like you know what? Those are real effects so why would you deny yourself the benefit of those effects? Yeah, so you think you’re being really logical, like no, it’s stupid. I’m too scientifically-minded to bring that little rabbit’s foot or that little thing that would help me, but if it would help you it’s actually more illogical to not make use of that.

Brett McKay: Right. So what is all this, you mentioned it earlier, but how is all of this research about increasing our luck, which is basically trying to take into account these human factors that often sway whether something happens to us or not and influencing them, but how has this research influenced you when things don’t go your way, when you’re unlucky?

Karla Starr: This sounds so cheesy and it’s one of those things that I’ve seen so many times, like cliché posters or what your grandmother would say, but it actually ends up having really scientifically valid background, is use failure as a learning experience. That is it. I think I used to think of any kind of failure or setback as overall marker of my worth or my overall ability, but I think if you can kind of remove yourself and look at the situation objectively and look at your part in things and just kind of use that as information to just keep going forward or learn and maybe change your strategy or routine a little bit and go on, that is the most beneficial reaction to have.

Even if that whole learning strategy is just you know what? I’m going to persist. I’m going to do this one more time because it really is … How many times are we going to get up? Like they say, a master is somebody who has failed more times than a novice has even tried.

Brett McKay: Right. Also, just don’t take it personally. I say well, it had nothing to do with me. The guy saw me, I reminded him on his crazy uncle. That’s why I didn’t get the job.

Karla Starr: Absolutely. Yeah, it had nothing to do with me but also however I can maximize my desirability as a candidate, you know? However, what this guy says, that doesn’t mean I’m bad.

Brett McKay: Right, so that luck paradox. You’re like believing in luck can unmotivate you. The upside of not believing in luck is it motivates you, right?

Karla Starr: Right.

Brett McKay: You feel like you have a sense of control, but the upside of also understanding that luck plays a role is when things don’t go your way you can be like, “Okay, I did everything I could. This is learning point. I’m going to keep moving forward despite that.

Karla Starr: Yes, absolutely. It is that luck paradox, right. So it’s like it doesn’t have anything to do with you because it might have been the shirt you were wearing. However, what do you bring to the table? You can learn and be persistent and keep going.

Brett McKay: Well Karla, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

Karla Starr: Thank you so much for having me. They can go to my website. It’s It’s

Brett McKay: Awesome. Well Karla Starr, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Karla Starr: Thank you so much for having me. It’s been great.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Karla Starr. She is the author of the book Can You Learn To Be Lucky. It’s available on and bookstores everywhere. You can find more information about her work and the book at her website KStarr, that’s Starr with two Rs, Also, check out our show notes at AOM.IS/lucky. You can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the A1 Podcast. Check out our website at where you can see our podcast archives. We’ve got over 480 there. Also, the thousands of articles we have there about personal finances, career, physical fitness, you name it, we’ve got it. If you haven’t done so already I’d appreciate if you’d take one minute to give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. It helps out a lot.

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