How You Can Learn to Have Lucky Genes
Excerpted from Can You Learn to Be Lucky?: Why Some People Seem to Win More Often Than Others by Karla Starr, in agreement with Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Karla Starr, 2018.
One shortcut to becoming an expert is to find something you're already good at. Or at least something you pick up faster than others. Talent, after all, is relative -- which is why our confidence in walking increases next to a baby, but decreases next to someone who takes that whole "left right" thing to a new damn level.
Related: There's No Such Thing as Good Luck
Olympians have spent years dedicating themselves to their skill, testing the human body's maximum potential against others at their lifetime physical peak. The Olympics represent the pinnacle of sporting achievement, and just like Carnegie Hall, getting there requires practice -- and victory. Competing in rhythmic gymnastics requires more than uploading videos clearly showing one's ability to make pretty shapes out of ribbons while wearing a leotard; one must also demonstrate superior achievement in public. Despite the variation in how long Karl Anders Ericsson's elite violinists practiced before reaching Carnegie Hall, they all shared one thing: Starting at age 8, they won 67 percent of the competitions that they entered, while those in the lowest-ranking group won only 18 percent of the time. Practice makes the greats even greater; while there was a time when Yo-Yo Ma couldn't even play an F scale, at some point early it became evident that he played better than his peers. Eight-year-old Stephen Hawking wasn't smarter than 40-year-old Stephen Hawking, but he was smarter than other 8-year-olds.
Discovering what you pick up easily gives you the motivation required to get through the practice. Winning increases testosterone, regardless of whom we beat or how skilled our opponents are. Winning provides a confidence boost by allowing us to evaluate ourselves favorably compared with our peers. Having the luck to find something you pick up quickly creates a positive, upward spiral in which confidence and performance bolster each other, making it easier to enjoy and stick with the necessary practice.
Related: 10 Proven Ways to Make Your Own Luck
When we set goals that we're genuinely interested in achieving, we're better able to find the energy and time to pursue them by ignoring temptations or obstacles. While the reinforcement learning signal (the That Did Not Go According to Plan sign) occurs when we get corrective feedback about our actions, it's amplified when we see a link between our behaviors and the outcomes, when we're interested in the outcomes, and when we get a sense that we can actually learn how to correctly modify our behavior to do better next time. Knowing that we can improve, and how to improve, at something that we care about actually makes it easier to learn.
Experts seem crazy because they repeatedly run headfirst into their brain's aversive That Did Not Pan Out signal -- the horrible, effortful tediousness of repeatedly confronting their weaknesses and errors known as deliberate practice -- when it's well documented that what most of us really want in life is to be paid $1 million to eat a sandwich and take a nap. But, this isn't the only method of learning: We can also improve through deliberate "play," a form of unstructured practice guided by the participants. Think of children playing soccer in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, hockey on suburban streets in Minnesota, one-on-one basketball in a park or surfers spending their weekends at the coast. Repeat after me: Forging new neuromuscular connections can be fun. Alas, our opportunities to do so depend on our surroundings.
Vivienne Ming is a theoretical neuroscientist turned serial startup founder whose work on maximizing human potential has helped reveal which traits predict who winds up on top. A few years ago, Ming was invited to a Red Bull-sponsored conference in Santa Monica, Calif., where she happened to eat lunch next to Rodney Mullen, one of the greatest skateboarders of all time. The heel flip? The 360? The flat-ground ollie? He didn't just execute them while winning national championships: He invented them.
"I began to wonder what's in common between the best developers, the best everybody else, the best salespeople -- and then, truly interestingly, the best skateboarders." Ming prodded him for details about the experience of preparing for and competing in a world championship. She got the expected answer about a superhuman focus until the competition. After the competition, most people would opt for that sandwich and nap; the skateboard greats Rodney Mullen and Tony Hawk are not most people.
"'Well, Tony [Hawk] and I would go back to the after party and drink a little champagne. And then 20 or 30 minutes later, we would be out back practicing new moves.' Which was exactly what I wanted to hear, because [of] what I found in the best developers and the best salespeople. Independent of their skill sets, independent of their grades, I could predict the best people by simply looking at what they did when they didn't have to do it.'" It's after a victory, competition or completion of a project, Ming says, that most of us would say, "'Take a break. No one cares.' But, they do. They are incentive insensitive. They are fanatics." Being able to choose an activity you find genuinely interesting makes it easier to make an effort; people will gladly participate in a demanding activity, just as long as it doesn't feel like work. Having the luck to find something that you love enough to practice a lot creates a positive, upward spiral that makes you want to stick with it. Being forced to do something -- even if it seems fun to others -- dramatically increases the risk of disengagement and burnout.