The Art & Science of Getting Lucky

The Art & Science of Getting Lucky

If you want a job, eventually you’re going to have to show up for an interview; ditto, a first date. Showing up in therightplace can make all the difference. For example, even though I can technically live anywhere as a writer, there’s a reason I’m in New York: it’s where more luck happens.

This may seem obvious, but it’s worth explicitly stating that, industries and resources cluster in hotspots, making luck more common in some areas. If you’re in the tech world, that’s the Bay Area; if you want to make it big in acting, most of the roles are in L.A. or New York; in politics, D.C. is the obvious hub. This doesn’t mean you can’t work in these industries from other places, but it does mean you increase your odds of getting “lucky” where those things are more likely to happen.

The second key component of luck is harder to master. It’s simply to accept the fact that you can’t control timing—you just have to be in the right place at the right time. Even when you’re just starting out in a field, feel awkward, lack confidence, are convinced that you’ll stick out, have heard of others being mistreated, or have personally experienced some less-than-stellar behavior.

“When all of the forces appear to be conspiring against you, you can actually bend luck in your favor.”

It’s a daunting, but not impossible, task. When all of the forces appear to be conspiring against you, you can actually bend luck in your favor. Beyond being in the right place at the right time (which, again, is a prerequisite), there are smarter, better (research-supported) ways to maximize luck, especially in a social setting.

How You Think People See You

There are three sides to every story—his, hers, and the truth—and it’s hard to argue with the objective lens of the camera. In the late 1970s, the re- searchers Robert E. Kleck and Angelo Strenta wanted to examine how medical conditions influenced day-to-day social interactions. They randomly assigned subjects to play the role of someone with a facial scar, epilepsy, or allergy, even though none of them had these conditions. For those in the scar condition, researchers applied a special kind of makeup to their faces that you’ve probably seen in a horror movie; when dried, it looked just like a prominently visible scar. After the subjects with the fake scars looked at themselves in a mirror to verify their newly disfigured faces—but just before they left to interact with others—the researchers applied a cream to prevent the makeup from cracking and breaking open, they were told not to discuss their fictional maladies with the other person (researchers wanted to study how these stigmatized health conditions would affect conversations on irrelevant topics). Finally, subjects entered a room with two chairs and spoke freely with the other, non-diseased student for six minutes.

After good times were surely had by all, they parted ways and answered a questionnaire about the other person that included questions comparing what that interaction was like with other ones they’d had when they didn’t appear to have a giant scar on their face: How much did that person talk or make eye contact? Did she seem tense or patronizing? Did he seem to like them?

“It’s the only study I’ve ever done in which every subject behaved the same way,” says Kleck, who still vividly remembers conducting this study more than three decades later. “They all said, ‘Oh, my God. It had such an impact on the other person.’” Subjects reported plenty of negative side effects that they usually didn’t have to deal with when people found them blemish-, epilepsy-, and allergy-free.

Then, the tape.

How People Actually See You

“We said, ‘Hey, we [made] a videotape of that other person. We didn’t tell either of you ahead of time because we felt that would make you uncomfortable, but I want you to go through that videotape and point out the behaviors that gave you the clue that they were responding to that facial scar.’” Subjects then watched the video, which only showed the other person they’d been speaking with, and were asked to point out anything unusual in the interaction like a gesture, sideways glance, weird vocal inflection, or a look of discomfort, pity, or concern.

“Turn on the tape, and they stop it almost immediately. ‘Did you see them just shift in their chair? They are very nervous.’ Turn the tape back on? Bang and I stop it. ‘They’re staring at me. They’re afraid if they look away I’ll be aware that they’re upset by my scar.’

“Start the tape again, bang: ‘They’re looking away.  They can’t stand to look at my face anymore.’”

But like most decent psychology studies, this one was built on a bed of lies.  The subjects with the fake scars didn’t know that the researchers had lied about lotion; the cream didn’t keep the scar in place: it removed it.

They were flawless and scar-free throughout the conversation.

“Some of these reports were forty-five minutes in length,” remembers Kleck, “going on [with] great specifics about how the other person’s behavior was affected by the scar they didn’t have.”

When You Lead With Fear

Is anything more ambiguous than the social world? Entering a conversation with our scale leaning toward “This isn’t worth it” or “I’m not worthy” makes it easier to pick up those corresponding marbles: We interpret someone’s look as “I can’t believe you said that” when it was simply “I have something in my eye.” We see a pair of crossed arms as “stay away,” rather than “damn, I forgot my sweater again.” We see a wink as a cheesy gesture or lazy attempt to flirt; we don’t see the amount of courage it took for that typically shy person to wink at all.

If expressions are as ambiguous as modern art, we can think of conversations as interactive works of modern art. Because motivation is a combination of expectancy and value, fundamental differences in how often we expect interactions to pan out well, or even value them in the first place, shape how we habitually orient ourselves to others from the get-go. The individual quirks of beliefs and baggage that emerge in individual conversations can create wildly different social paths over time. Downplaying the value of social rewards makes us more likely to avoid them.

Craving a connection but being uncertain about it even happening— anticipating or fearing rejection—turns us into the people with fake scars, making us downplay positive behavior, interpreting behavior negatively (he just texted back because he feels sorry for me!), and zoom in on bad things, all of which destabilize the very connections we crave. These negative patterns can continue ad infinitum because of what happens in any self-fulfilling prophecy: Our hunches are confirmed. The world continues as predicted. At no point in this process do we learn that we’re the ones keeping others at a distance or driving them away by making them feel uneasy. Because our WTF Just Happened signal never goes off—our brain’s error-detection alert that we’ve made a mistake—we never learn.

What If You Led With Generosity Instead?

Feeling anxious around someone (typically because you see them as being of a slightly higher status, or fear rejection) means you’ve got marbles stacked on the “I’m not worthy” side, but you can’t simply course correct by dumping “I got this” marbles prior to delivering your first-date soliloquy, or looking at the mirror while wearing rose-colored glasses. Conversations are like sex: Loving your own story or penis doesn’t matter if the other side leaves unhappy. Getting others on our side requires looking at people and plunking an “interesting person worth knowing” marble on the scale. As with any skill, building the social skills that constitute mutually rewarding interactions requires getting real-time feedback about how much others actually enjoy our company.

“You could be that person, bringing smiles and help to others, creating your own upward spiral of positivity”

Treating everyone like an acquaintance and every interaction like a pleasantry—that barista could be your friend’s friend, after all—makes everyone happier. We’re attracted to people who make us feel good, and because we’re responsible for 50 percent of the variance in our social interactions, each of us has an “affective presence,” or a way that we reliably leave a unique mark on others. And you could be that person, bringing smiles and help to others and accumulating more social support along the way, creating your own upward spiral of positivity. You could be one of those people who know everyone, the ones who get lots of opportunities handed to them because of their social ties, the ones who have us at hello.

Adapted fromCan You Learn to be Lucky?: Why Some People Seem to Win More Often Than Othersby Karla Starr, in agreement with Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Karla Starr, 2018.