Janice Kaplan: Luck Isn’t Magic — Transcript
Ben Schuman-Stoler: Welcome to Simplify. I’m Ben Schuman-Stoler.
Caitlin Schiller: And I’m Caitlin Schiller. Simplify is for anybody who’s taken a close look at their habits, their happiness, their relationships, or their health, and thought, there’s got to be a better way to do this.
Ben: Okay, so, I gotta be honest. I never really thought about “simplifying” today’s topic until I actually heard the interview. And, … I’m actually still a little surprised by it.
Caitlin: Is it because of your tortured relationship to optimism, Ben?
Ben: Well. That. Thanks. But also just the idea that luck is a thing you can engineer! It’s a really cool concept, and you got to talk about it with Janice Kaplan.
For those of you who don’t know, Kaplan’s a New York Times bestseller with The Gratitude Diaries and I’ll See You Again and was Editor-In-Chief of Parade magazine, which used to be one of the biggest magazines in America.
Caitlin: Yeah, I totally remember that. I remember seeing it on newsstands in the supermarket all the time.
Ben: She’s also been a TV producer and a writer. For this book, which is called How Luck Happens she teamed up with evolutionary biologist Barnaby Marsh who’s also an economist and they talked about a formula for luck.
And it’s kinda like a lot of things with Simplify, if you take a step back, even with luck, if you take a step back and try to figure out how to make it happen once, you can probably make it happen again.
Caitlin: Exactly. This book is kind of a manual on how to make more luck in your own life. So in our chat, Janice and I cover the idea of weak ties, risk floors, and how luck is other people (but probably not your mom), and when—if luck refuses to show up—you should give up or change tactics.
Ben: Cool. So, here’s the interview with you, Caitlin Schiller and Janice Kaplan. As always, you and I will be join up at the end of the episode with The Bookend, when we’ll wrap up the topic of luck and make a book list so people can read more if they’re interested. Alright then, catch you guys in The Bookend!
Caitlin interviews Janice Kaplan
Caitlin: Could you please introduce yourself?
Janice Kaplan: Sure, I’m Janice Kaplan and I am the author of the new book How Luck Happens.
Caitlin: Very cool. So we’re going to talk about luck, and what luck is and what luck isn’t. What is luck to you? What is your definition?
Janice: Well, you know we did, in this book, decide to turn the definition of luck on its head because we do tend to think of luck as being random chance. And my thought was that if you wait for random chance to happen, you’re probably going to be waiting for a really long time.
So we started looking at luck as being at the intersection of random chance and talent and hard work. And let me explain those second two. By talent I don’t mean that you have to sing like Beyoncé — though, of course, that never hurts — but talent is a whole bucket of things. That includes your ability to recognize opportunities, to see possibilities, to do things a little differently sometimes — what we call “zig when others zag” — and sometimes to take a little bit of risk. Hard work is, I’m afraid to say, hard work. There’s no getting around that one. But if you put those two together, if you put those buckets of talent and hard work together, then you have two big parts of the equation in place.
And when random chance, that third part of the equation, comes along, then either don’t have to worry about it, if it’s something bad or unfortunate, in terms of random chance. Or you get to take advantage of it and really make something wonderful out of it, if it’s something good. So it gives you a much greater sense of control over your own life and your own possibilities.
Caitlin: So when you were researching for the book… I’m sure that you talked to a lot of people about what you were working on —just regular people, maybe friends— what did you find people got wrong about luck?
Janice: Well, the first question everybody asked me was, “Oh, are you buying a lottery ticket?” And a lottery is a really bad example of luck. A lottery is statistically improbable that you’ll win, the odds are against you, there is no way you can change the odds, there is nothing that you can do about it.
And so that is just, you know, pure random chance. And so I tried to explain that really thinking about luck has to come from a different perspective. So the second thing that I would hear all the time from people is that they would talk about how they had had some event in their own lives that was a complete lucky occurrence and that their entire career had occurred because of that.
Let me give you an example. One very successful entrepreneur told me that he just happened to be sitting next to an investor at an event, who offered to support him. And his company is now worth a huge fortune.
Well, that’s a great story, right? An entire career and company turned on where you happen to be sitting. But I said to him, “Let’s take it back a couple of steps. You had a great idea.” You know, this was an entrepreneur, he had been working on this idea for years. He went to the dinner because he networked with someone who could connect him to that investor. And when he sat next to him, he had the right thing to say to him. That’s not luck. That’s putting everything in place.
And I can tell you that if I happen to be sitting next to that investor, I would not now have a 100 million dollar company. You have to set yourself up to be lucky, and I think so often when we take the position that “Oh, I just happen to be sitting there and it was just this random lucky event”, we sound very humble and it seems very lovely that circumstances and serendipity have taken over.
But there’s a danger to that, which is that we don’t recognize that we can do it again. And if we do stop and think what put us in that position, how we got to that dinner, what we said, the three years we had spent preparing and thinking about this company we wanted to start, when we realize all that went into it, then we realize that maybe we can do it again. If we see life is just being a complete random event, then you’re at the winds of whatever happens.
Caitlin: You know, this story that you just shared made me think about the section in your book about how other people help you create luck. And you talk about something called “weak ties” and how they are the bringers of good luck. Can you explain a little bit about what a “weak tie” is and how that works and helps people get more luck?
Janice: Well, luck is very much other people or from other people, I think. And we tend to think that the people who are going to make us lucky are those closest to us, right? Mom and Dad are looking out for us, best friends, you know, you’re closest circle. But those people all know the same people that you do, they know the same opportunities that you do, they’re in the same circle that you are.
If you look at that next circle of people, or even that third circle beyond – the people who may be talked to a couple of times a year, or encounter now and then, but do keep up a connection with, those are your weak ties. And sociologists have the wonderful phrase, where they refer to the strength of weak ties. Because, interestingly, it is those people in that farther out circle – those weak ties – who tend to create luck for you, who tend to find possibilities that you don’t know about, who know people that you don’t know about, who can connect you to others.
Caitlin: Could you speak a little bit about optimism and its role in luck?
Janice: Optimism is incredibly important in creating luck. And I don’t mean that in any mystical sense. You know, people like to say, “Oh, is it true that if I just think something and put it out to the universe, the universe will respond?” And my answer is no, the universe will not respond unless you do something.
But on the other side of that, if you believe in something, if you really want something, if you’re very focused on it, then you are much more likely to take the steps that are going to make it occur. You’re going to move forward in a way that will make an event that you care about happen.
We interviewed Dr. Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania, who’s often considered the sort of founder / starter / father of positive psychology. He, by the way, says that he’s a very negative person himself, but he’s managed to get over it by realizing the importance of being positive. And he said that if he were, you know, going off on a space flight and he needed one person along for good luck – the number one trait that he would look for, would be somebody who was optimistic.
And there are so many different reasons for that. It is, as I said, if you believe in something, you’re going to focus and try to make it happen. The other thing is that if you’re negative and pessimistic, you tend to be very downwardly focused. You know, you tend to not look around you, you tend to just kind of be in a little hole, and only be seeing the negative that’s in front of you.
Whereas, if you’re positive and optimistic, you quite literally lift your head up, and quite literally look around, and look for the sunshine, and look for the brightness, and look for the positive things. And when you do that, you’re much more likely to be able to make things happen. So I think that that little twist of being able to see the positive has so many positive effects in life. It’s what I found when I wrote about gratitude, and it certainly what I found, when I wrote about luck also.
Caitlin: That’s a really nice thing to hear! That makes it sound so weak, but it’s nice to know that looking on the bright side actually can be very useful. It also reminded me of the part in your book where you talk about failure —and I have something that I dog-eared here— “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” How do you know when to keep trying and when to give up? Is that something that you found out about at all in your research?
Janice: Persistence is really important in making luck. And we talked to the mathematician Leonard Mlodinow, who explained it to me that in the terms of that you need a lot of at-bats, and that can make up for your being a lousy hitter. As he explained it, you know, he talked about two people of different abilities: one who succeeds 99% of the time, and one who succeeds only 1% of the time.
And sometimes the less talented person can seem to be incredibly lucky at landing a great job, or an acting part, or a loving spouse. But there’s a good chance that he’s changed his odds by not giving up and having more at-bats. So think of it this way, if you try a 100 times, you might succeed because the statistics are on your side, right? It’s how you turn a 1% person as it were into a 99% person. So the less obviously talented person, who keeps trying, is eventually going to get that hit, and get the same success as the superstar, who only needs to try once. I hope that makes sense.
But the other side of that is when do you stop? When do you being too persistent, right? We talk in the book about people, like John Grisham, and Dr. Seuss, and JK Rowling who wrote the Harry Potter books. And how many times they were rejected! You know, hundreds of times, I think it was for John Grisham. And similar numbers for Dr. Seuss, and they were each willing, you know, ready to give up, when they tried just one more time, and then of course became huge successes.
But the other side of that is, if your book has been turned down 200 times by publishers, it’s very possible that you’ve written a lousy book, and you should go you should go on and do something else. So, how do you make that decision? How do you know when you should keep persisting? How do you know when you should keep trying to get more of those at-bats.
And I think one way to look at it is to see how close you’ve gotten each time. If you’re trying to be an actor, and you get rejected on the first round for every audition you go to, maybe it’s time to go to law school. But if you keep getting up to, you know, it’s just between you and that one other person. And you don’t get it. And it’s between you and three other people, and you don’t get it. That means you have the talent, that means you have the ability. And it is just going to take that persistence and that extra hard work.
So you need to be a little honest with yourself perhaps, and really look at what you’re hearing back. But give yourself that chance, have that persistence, get up to bat enough times that you can get that hit. And again, you don’t necessarily have to be the most talented. Sometimes you can make the luck by just making sure that you keep swinging.
Caitlin: Janice, personal question. Have you had a moment when you almost gave up on something and then suddenly struck it lucky?
Janice: I’ve had a career where I’ve done a number of different things. I’ve been a TV producer, and I’ve been a magazine editor, and I’ve written a dozen books. And I think one of the ways that I’ve always been able to make luck is to go back and forth by different things. And for me, it’s not so much having a back-up plan though, I think we’ve discovered that that is actually a good way to get lucky. But by having diversity.
We saw that frequently with many of the entrepreneurs that we spoke to. You know, there’s a myth in America that if you want to be successful, you have to throw everything into what you’re doing. And we hear those stories of the executives, who use their last dime to start their company. Well, that’s all well and good. But when you look at those stories, very often they did have a back-up plan. Very often they had what they saw as a floor on the risk that they were taking, or something else that they might be able to do.
And in many ways, I think, that gives you an added ability. Because you’re not so scared, you’re not so worried, you are able to throw yourself fully into something, and be really excited about it. But know, if it wipes out, you can, you know, land on your butt, but you’re going to stand up again.
And we found that over and over again, with people again, when you get behind the myths of the stories of some of these startup companies, that many of the people, again as I said, had that floor on their risk or had that diversity in their lives. And for me, that diversity was always really important.
Caitlin: I think I have also benefited from that I always had some sort of backup plan.
Janice: And it tends to be more fun too! You know, for a while early in my career, when I had been a TV producer, and I had been a magazine editor, and I’d written a few books at that point. And I thought, “Oh gosh, if only I had focused on one of these, you know, I would have been more successful!” But then, as my career went on, I realized how very important it was to have that diversity, not only as of a fallback of from one to another, but because there’s great enrichment that each gets from the other.
I think, my writing and my journalism is much enriched by the experiences that I’ve had in other fields, that my whole life hasn’t been just sitting and writing. So I think that having those different avenues makes luck in many different ways, and makes luck within each of the paths that you choose also.
Ben: Hey guys, it’s Ben. We’re taking a quick break from Caitlin and Janice Kaplan so that I give a quick shout-out and a recommendation to the bonus episode of season one which is about how to read faster by Abby Marks Beale. Like, the thing is at Simplify, we always try to, we don’t just pick the best, best, best crazy-hyped bestseller famous author people, although we like talking to them also. We also try to pick books that will actually make a difference in your life, so that’s why we picked luck, and that’s why in the first season we picked the Abby Marks Beale book, 10 Days to Faster Reading. And the interview that we did back then is full of tips to be a faster reader, and you should buy the book. It’s small and you can read it very fast. Anyway, look it up, or go to the Blinkist Magazine and search Abby Marks Beale in Simplify. That’s enough from me. Let’s get back to Caitlin and Janice Kaplan, and I’ll catch you guys in The Bookend. Have fun! See you soon.
Caitlin: What’s something that you’ve learned, while you were researching for the book, that really surprised you? I assume there was something… Maybe not. But, is there anything that really bowled you over?
Janice: I think, I was most surprised by the concept of zigging when others zag. You know, I’ve always been a good girl and I’ve always gone in a very straight path. And it was pretty exciting to me to encounter so many people, who have been successful by doing something very different.
We spoke to Dr. Jim Watson, who was along with Watson and Crick, who helped discover the structure of DNA. And he was very ardent that nobody has ever become successful by thinking in standard ways, by going in standard paths. Now, Dr. Watson has, of course, raised some great controversies and caused himself some great troubles by going in some very politically incorrect paths later in his life. But in terms of his scientific achievements, I think, those stand without question, and he certainly said that you can’t have a scientific achievement without thinking differently. And some of the things that look like luck in science are really just that you’ve been able to look in a different direction.
In a very different field, one of my favorite stories was a television executive named Mike Darnell, who was at Fox television early on in his career. And he was one of the people who actually pretty much started reality television. Now, this may be for good or bad. And he said, he very carefully chose a lane, where nobody else was at the time. Nobody was doing reality television, when he chose to do that. And this was a big risk. Television is a field where everybody copies each other. And so trying to be different, you know, was kind of risky, but he also felt that he was never going to be able to succeed, unless he did something very different – chose his own lane. The result of that, it was that everybody made fun of the shows that he put on the air. He had shows like Temptation Island and Joe Millionaire. And they were scorned by all of the other networks.
But then, when a TV executive from the UK named Simon Fuller came to America with the idea for a TV show, none of the executives in Hollywood would talk to him because who wanted to talk to a reality TV show guy? Mike talked to him. Mike loved his idea. Mike put it on the air as a summer replacement, and it became American Idol and has actually just returned to the air. Mike is no longer at Fox. But so, Mike is the guy who brought American Idol. And he says that only happened because he was trying to do something different, because he was trying to think differently than than other people. And that’s been very exciting to me, to think of the idea of that you can make luck by thinking of yourself as a lucky person being willing to try something different, to go in a completely different direction and see what happens.
Caitlin: Something that I’ve been wondering about, as these stories stack up about the, these wonderful anecdotes you’ve been sharing, these are people who are already well poised to glean luck. They are people who already have positions of power, already have a network. Is there a limitation to thinking about luck as something you can create for yourself? What about people who are disadvantaged?
Janice: Great question! But, I think, it’s really important to realize that the principles that hold for creating luck hold wherever you start, and from whatever position that you’re in. It’s very easy to look upwards at somebody and say, “Oh, they’re so lucky! You know, of course, they can make more luck, because look where they’re starting from. Of course, they should be grateful, look where they’re starting from.” But it’s harder to look down and realize how many people are looking up at us that way. And say, “Wow, you are in a great position. You’re in a position where you can do something.” And I think all of us, no matter where we start, if we follow those ideas of looking for possibilities, of seeking opportunities, of looking for help from others, we can start to create luck within our own spheres.
I guess the point is that the possibilities are there, so often the possibilities are either blatantly in front of us or are less obvious, but still possible. And our jobs, no matter where we’re starting, no matter who we are, no matter what cultural expectations we have around us, are to be able to take advantage, make the luck for ourselves, create the possibilities within the realms that we have.
Caitlin: So then it’s more about learning the principles and the rules and starting where you are.
Janice: I think so. I think that no matter where you are, no matter who you are, you can create luck. And I’ve been very moved by the people who I encounter as I’m speaking, both about luck and about gratitude, who talked about the very very difficult positions that they have been in. I hear over and over again people who come up to me and tell me about just terrible situations they’ve had: health situations they’ve had, tragedies in their families; and they’ll say, “But you know, I really feel that it was so lucky because it brought me closer to my husband,” or “It made me appreciate something.”
And to be able to have —and it goes back to that optimism in that positive outlook we were talking about before— to be able to take your own situation that may be difficult, that may have started from a difficult position, and to be able to find a luck in it, to be able to find the positivity in it, and the brightness in it, is really a wonderful thing to do. And it changes your life.
Caitlin: What do you say to people, who think that what you just described sounds like lying to yourself? Because it’s re-writing of your own story. I guess if you’re a pessimist, there’s a temptation to say, “This is a terrible thing that happened to me.” And I think a lot of pessimists think that pessimism is reality. So if you dare to reframe your narrative in a way that, “Hm, you know, I had this horrible accident, but it brought me closer to my family.” They look at it and say, “Yeah, but you’re just kidding yourself.” What do you think of that idea?
Janice: Yeah, it is amusing, isn’t it, that negative people always think that they have the real way of looking at things and positive people are somehow distorting it. It’s very amusing. That’s always the case.
And, you know, I don’t think that’s accurate. But I also think it’s not just YOUR WAY of looking at it though, that’s very important. But it’s WHAT YOU THEN DO with that. Luck comes from actions, gratitude comes from actions. There’s a story that I like of the author Lee Child, that international best-selling author of the Jack Reacher thriller novels, that were turned into movies with Tom Cruise.
And Lee told me that he didn’t start writing those books, until he was fired from his job as a TV producer in the UK. And he had been a TV producer/director for about a dozen years, he thought he was going to do that forever. There was a change in management, he got fired. And he didn’t know what to do. He had a wife. He had a daughter. He had a mortgage. He had a car payment. He was furious and upset, and just couldn’t imagine what could possibly happen in his life next. It was just, you know, mired in that fear and negativity. And he decided that he couldn’t do anything other than try to do something positive. And do something that he had always wanted to do, which was to start writing. And so he decided to see that really negative stroke of bad luck, that being fired, as an opportunity. And he took it that way.
Now, when you’re fired from your job, you don’t know that you are going to become an international best-selling writer and that your books are going to be turned into movies with Tom Cruise. I understand that. You’re in a tough position. But, you know, he said —and I think it’s a really wonderful point— “You don’t have a choice. Take that stroke of bad luck and think how it could possibly be a stroke of good luck.” As I said, what you’re trying to do is think of a lucky life. So that moment of bad luck may feel lousy, right then. It may feel lousy for a month or a year. But the bigger question is, what can you do so that you’re going to be able to look back on that in a couple of years as something that was actually a lucky opportunity.
And I actually spoke to an astrophysicist named Piet Hut, and his suggestion was that when you’re caught in a bad situation, again, you tend to sort of, you know, just see where you are. You just focus on that little hole and you keep digging yourself deeper and deeper. And he said, “Pull back, kind of float above yourself. Try to look down from above, and see where you are.” You can almost sort of physically picture it as if you’re standing in a forest, you know, and you can only see that little, you know, little tree in front of you. But if you pull back, maybe you can start to see some paths, that you hadn’t seen before. Maybe you can start to see that where you’re standing actually leads in a different direction, then you realized.
And I like that because pulling back is not something that we normally do, but it is a wonderful way to create luck. Because it does allow us to look out, to look up, to see the paths that we might not have otherwise seen. And by the way, Piet has a an asteroid named after him. So, you know, we can trust him.
Caitlin: Oh! Well, you know, as long as it’s not earthbound, we can trust him.
Janice: There you go.
Caitlin: I just want to switch tracks a little bit and ask you about how what you learned about luck applies to romance. How does someone get lucky in love?
Janice: Yeah, we all want to get lucky in love. And I’m afraid, I’m going to turn really unromantic on you here. Because as we did the research, over and over again psychologists, important psychologists, like Dan Ariely and Barry Schwartz, who used to be at Swarthmore, who did all of the work on choice, told us that the best way to get lucky in love is to invest in a relationship. That we tend to think of as being, you know, created: the day you get married, the day you meet somebody, you know, we’ve all watched too many romantic comedies, where love falls from the sky and we live happily ever after.
But anybody, who has been married for more than a minute and half, knows that that’s not true. And that you make a relationship by investing in the relationship, by treating the other person’s needs as important as your own is how you create what looks to others like that very close and bonded and very lucky relationship.
And interestingly, it’s the same thing if you’re looking for love. It’s so easy now online to just keep swiping, right? Keep going to the next person and there’s always going to be somebody else out there. And we spoke to Helen Fisher, who has written extensively about sex and romance, and also is one of the science advisor to match.com. So you would think that she would have told us, you know, just go online and keep looking until you get lucky in love. And she said quite the opposite, she said, as the other psychologists did, “You can get overwhelmed, and you really have to stop and limit your choices.” I think she said, you know, 3 to 5, or 5 to 7 people. And then from there, meet them, sit down, invest, take some time. It’s really easy to meet people online, but as far as I know, nobody ever got married online. You actually have to take the time to invest in a relationship, whether it’s at the very start of it, when you’re trying to meet somebody, or, whether it’s after you’ve already made the commitment. But lucky in love also, you know, is very different, I think, than the romantic notions that we have of it.
Caitlin: OK. You have a whole entire chapter on “kids and luck” and teaching children about what luck is. You’ve already raised a son, at least one son who you mention the book, up to adulthood. If you were to raise a child now, how would you use what you learned about luck in your parenting?
Janice: You know, part of the point of the “raising lucky kids” chapter is the idea that, you know, parenting is complicated. But basically lucky kids are happy kids. And lucky kids are kids who know that they have some control over their own lives. And lucky kids realize that they’re not going to find happiness necessarily by going only in one direction.
And I spoke to a woman named Dr. Jessica Levenstein, who’s the head of a very wonderful private school in Manhattan called Horace Mann. And Jessica was talking about how kids in in a situation like that, very elite private school, tend to have parents who are very successful in their careers, and to see luck as being something preordained. You know, that they need to get into the right schools, so that they can get into the right business schools, so that they can get the right job at the right investment bank, so that they can earn a lot of money, etc.
And she said that she feels her job is to make lucky kids by showing them that there are so many things that they could do. That there are so many possibilities in so many cities that they’ve never even heard of yet. And so many opportunities that they have. And she actually tries to bring in people back to speak at school assemblies, who graduated the school, who went off in different directions, who, you know, became a chef, or who moved to Berlin and started doing an interesting company there themselves. So that she could show them different kinds of things. And I think that’s a great gift we can give to our children to make them lucky, to realize that there are other opportunities that they can have, and that they can create their own lives.
I think we make lucky kids also by giving them that sense early on that they can control certain things in their lives. And I actually just spoke recently to the head of a nursery school. And he was talking about the importance of letting kids, you know, be unusual, and be different, and go in different paths. And I said to him, “Well, that’s OK. Maybe when they’re in Nursery School, but, you know, then they get to third grade and they’re expected to sit down and be good and spell.” And he said, “You know, we could probably do very well TO our children by starting to recognize that quirky and different isn’t bad.” And I think that’s very lovely to encourage our children to be who they are, is one of the great ways to make them lucky.
And by the way, we can start with that when our children are toddlers, right? It’s a fine balance, you know, we need our kids to be able to be social in public situations, but we also need to recognize that they’re going to make luck. They’re going to make luck for themselves and for the world by being who they are, and by being a little different, and by being able to see things differently.
Caitlin: It occurred to me, as you were talking so eloquently about luck and how it’s the intersection of talent, and hard work, and random chance, and mostly your book focuses on the talent and hard work portion of it, and how we can gain control of luck.
But is there a darker side of all this control? Do you think that it has the potential to be burdensome? And people could just blame themselves. I think maybe one of the beauties of how we traditionally conceive of luck because it’s out of our hands but what do you think is ultimately the more empowering stance?
Janice: Oh well, that’s a really interesting question! I don’t think it’s empowering at all to think of life as being out of our hands. I think it’s kind of scary, and I think most of us would like to be able to feel like there is something we can do in different and difficult situations. You know, certainly there are going to be things, that befall us or there are going to be medical problems that befall us. But, you know, most of us, if we get ill, we don’t just sit back and say, “Hm, let me see what luck brings. Let me see what happens.” We try to see what the appropriate steps are, what we can do, how we can make ourselves better, how we can take that unfortunate event that has just occurred to us or befallen us and, you know, make it so that we can go on, and be healthy, and be better.
So I think that knowing that more of life is under your control than you might have thought is really very empowering and gives you a bit of a sense of relief that you can grab some control back.
Caitlin: So if you could leave everyone listening today with one idea about luck, that could change how they conceive of it or pursue it. What would it be?
Janice: I think it’s really important to recognize that you can create luck for yourself. And that the first thing to do is to define to yourself what you mean by a lucky life. To define for yourself what you mean by luck, what is going to feel good to you, because it may be different for individuals. And you don’t necessarily have to have the same definition as everybody else.
But knowing what to you, you’re going to be able to look back at the end of your life, and say, “Wow, that was a lucky life.” You want to start being able to move toward that, in whatever way you can. And sure, there are going to be all sorts of random things that you don’t expect. But if you have that bigger view and if you’re able to incorporate things as they come along: take them along, figure out how you can turn them around, make the negative positive, then you are ––whatever happens, however you’re buffeted by life good and bad–– you are ultimately going to be able to say, “I did it! I did what I could to make a lucky life.”
Caitlin: Okay, last question. I always like to ask our guests, what have you read lately that you’ve enjoyed?
Janice: You know, I actually just finished Walter Isaacson’s book The Innovators. And I found it really interesting, he’s a wonderful writer and he also looks at so many different people and what innovation is really all about, some of the women who have been overlooked in the world, as well as just a new approach to what that means. And so I really enjoy all the non-fiction books that give us a new a new approach to things.
There’s a brand new book that just came out called New Power by Henry Timms, which is also about seeing the world from a different perspective and changing the old top-down power to a more equitable form of new power. And I like things that give us hope and positivity of a ways to think about the world in different ways and both of those books certainly do that.
Caitlin: Alright, well, Janice, that’s it from my side. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk today. It’s been a really illuminating conversation about luck.
Janice: Oh wonderful. Thank you so much.
Caitlin: Thank you. Take care. Bye!
Ben: Welcome to The Bookend. Where we end…with books.
Caitlin: And more luck-talk.
Ben: Right. So, let’s do that part first and talk about this interview a little. Why did you want to have Janice Kaplan on the show?
Caitlin: Well, like I said at the top of the show, I used to like the idea that luck was mostly magic. There’s something kind of sweet and miraculous about thinking that way. But I got a copy of How Luck Happens and as I started skimming through it, I started to think about how that attitude toward luck could also trap us, and isn’t very empowering at all. In fact, believing we have no control over our own luck whatsoever actually engenders a kind of helplessness and even, in some cases, laziness, that I don’t stand behind at all.
Ben: So you wanted to make sure none of our listeners were being lazy about their own luck?
Caitlin: Ha. Not exactly! It was more like, “Why not take advantage of all the tools—the mindset shifts and habits of thought—we possibly can to make our own lives feel richer and more magical instead of waiting for magic to happen to us?” This way, we get to be the magicians instead to waiting for somebody else to cast a spell.
Ben: Yeah, and so, of everything you guys covered in this talk—which was a lot—what’s the one thing that you took away from it? What do you want people to remember?
Caitlin: That’s actually really easy, for once! The thing that I think is really important to remember is that, to a huge extent, luck comes from the story you tell yourself. As in: even if not-so-great things happen, how can you shift your own story so that this negative stroke of luck can feel like an opening for something else?
I don’t at all mean to imply that everything can be alchemized into a positive—some things are just genuinely awful and need to be respected as such before you can move on to moving on.
What I mean is: what can a circumstance that might not be ideal bring to light for you that you didn’t see before? That new piece of information and what you do with it is your ticket to creating a luckier life going forward.
Ben: So there’s a moment when Kaplan tells you, “think of a lucky life.” And I had to think of Grant Achatz, and his memoir Life, on the Line. Terrible cancer of the tongue in his early thirties. One of the world’s best chefs, facing the choice: have surgery to remove his tongue and never be able to taste again, or suffer through chemo and risk not surviving. Anyway he found a doctor who suggested a third way, and he came out ok. I won’t ruin the whole story for you –
Caitlin: I guess I can also watch the Top Chef episode about him –
Ben: It’s emotional and intense, and anyway so there’s a moment when a doctor walks into an examination room and says something like, “I could tell this about you the moment I saw you. You’re a lucky one. This isn’t your time yet.” But the thing is that he dragged himself (with the help of his investor and friend) to doctors and treatments all over the country. He kept the world’s #1 restaurant, Alinea, going. Idk. Maybe he was lucky, but maybe he put himself in the best position to survive, or to not survive, in the best way for himself, his children, his friends, his ambitions, and his dreams.
Caitlin: Wow that sounds like a really great memoir. If you love food. And chefs. Mmhmm. Moving on. What else you got?
Ben: Well as part of her research for the book, Kaplan spoke to Behavioral Economist Dan Ariely. He’s the bestselling author of among other things, The Upside of Irrationality, and that book is fuuuull of studies but I remembered this one that compared the overall life happiness among three groups: paraplegics, lottery winners, and normal people who were neither disabled nor particularly lucky. I’m going to read this straight from the book:
Had the data collection taken place immediately following the event that led to the disability or the day after the lottery win, one would expect the paraplegics to be far more miserable than the normal people and the lottery winners much happier than the normal people, but it turned out, because the data was actually collected a year after the event, it turned out there were differences in happiness levels. They weren’t as pronounced as you might expect. While the paraplegics weren’t has satisfied with life as the normal people, and the lottery winners were more satisfied, both paraplegics and lottery winners were surprisingly close to normal levels of life satisfaction, which means basically that life-altering events such as a bad injury or winning the lottery can have a huge initial impact on happiness, to a large degree it wears off over time.
Caitlin: Yeah, that’s so interesting.
Ben: So, like, these crazy lucky events, they maybe don’t have the huge, life-changing effect that we think they do.
Caitlin: Well, I think I’ve also read somewhere that we all have kind of a set point of happiness. And we can experience fluctuations based on what’s going on in our lives, but we always kind of return close to our set point.
Ben: Yeah. And a crazy lucky event—I guess my point there is, yeah, luck is important, but there are other, there’s so much else that can define it.
Ben: So, you got a book?
Caitlin: So my book is The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gotschall. And it underscores why humans are drawn to stories like flies to honey. It talks about the many different functions that stories—and storytelling—have in our lives and for our species, and how the activity of storytelling shapes who we think we are. It even talks about how being too realistic is actually bad for your mental health. For all the dreamers out there, this’ns for you.
Ben: So, wow. That’s it for this season of Simplify!
Caitlin: Yep. We’ve wrapped Season 3, but you’ll hear from us soon. In fact, you might start to hear more from us, and more different stuff, too, so stay tuned. We’ll be back in your ears before you know it.
Ben: It was produced by me, Ben Schuman-Stoler, Caitlin Schiller, Nat Darozhkina, and Ody Constantinou, who’s actually working on a Welsh translation of The Butterfly Jar, a children’s book of poetry. He’s going to do it in Welsh.
Caitlin: What a tender man! Cool, so if you enjoyed this episode of Simplify, hey—send it to one person you like and make them lucky, too. Podcasts are conversations. Use it to start one with someone you like!
Ben: Thanks to everyone who’s already subscribed. Shout out to all the podcatchers out there: Pocket Casts, Stitcher, Apple Podcast, Overcast, Google Play. If you don’t have a favorite one, you can also email us, and we can tell you based on what phone what app you should get. And please, give us a review, give us a rating –– it helps other people find out about us. So thanks.
Caitlin: If you want to tell us about how you got lucky—not that kind of lucky—tweet us. I’m @caitlinschiller and Ben’s @bsto.
Ben: We also wanted to tell you that Simplify is made by the same people who make Blinkist. Blinkist, if you don’t know, is a learning app that takes insights the world’s bestselling nonfiction books and condenses them into these focused little capsules of knowledge available in audio or text that you can listen to or read in just 15 minutes.
Caitlin: And if you want to try it out, we made another voucher code for this episode. You can get 14 days free if you go to blinkist.com/friends and type in the voucher code: luck. You get 14 days to try out Blinkist for free.
Ben: Get in touch with us at [email protected].
Caitlin: Thanks so much for being with us this season. Stay tuned, and we’ll be back with more smart stuff for you to listen to soon.
Ben: Til next time!