Draft: Get Lucky

by atucker 2 min read7th Aug 201236 comments


Here's a draft of an article that I want to post soon, but I figured I might as well get some feedback before I go ahead. If anyone else has exercises or experience with this I'd love to hear about it.

The popular science article version of the research mentioned can be found here: http://www.richardwiseman.com/resources/The_Luck_Factor.pdf

There's no fundamental propensity to good outcomes, but it looks like Luck is a thing.


There were some experiments done by Richard Wiseman (of 59 seconds fame/recommendation) investigating luck, and they found that there was a statistically significant factor which led to some people being more likely to receive unexpected benefits.


He took two groups of people, one self-proclaimed “very lucky” and the other normal, and asked them to do simple tasks, like to count the number of times a photograph appeared in a newspaper. He didn't tell them was that he had rigged the magazine to have a few convenient conveniences, like a giant sentence telling them that there were 43 photographs, or large text about how if the reader pointed this out to the researchers they could get $250.


Still, to a statistically significant degree, the “lucky” people noticed them more. What gives?


Have you ever missed an important detail because you were focused on something else? Once you're looking for something, you throw out details that fit. If you're looking for things that fit into the steps of a plan, then you're more likely to throw out stuff that's not already included.


If you weren't trying to count the number of times a word appeared, you probably would have caught the sentences. Planning on counting makes you miss details like it already being done for you.


Engineers bump into this sort of problem a lot. How many times have you spent a long time trying to code something before you found out that it was included in a library? Or tried to write a piece of code that doesn't actually wind up being used because what it accomplishes isn't actually needed?


This failure mode is child of lost causes and priming. If you try to do X in order to get G, then you're primed to miss Y even if it's relevant to G. If the bottom line is written, then you're going to leave stuff out.


Insofar as Luck exists, it seems to be the ability to use unexpected but useful information.


Not quite sure how to practice this skill. A few things I've tried:

  • Meditation. There are a few mental operations that seem related to letting go of a set of predictions and looking at reality instead. Like, asking how it actually feels to be breathing rather than looking for what you think breathing is like.
  • Feel “open” to the possibility of something popping up. I used to find four leaf clovers this way – by walking around occasionally glancing at the grass, and not particularly looking for a four leaf clover, but trusting my brain to draw my attention to it if there is one there and visible.
  • You could probably actually walk around outside right now and try this. See what it feels like to notice details.

  • Walk around outside and see if any small animals catch your eye. Try to use the feeling of your attention being grabbed more often.

  • Look around the room you're in and see if there's anything that you've forgotten about, but is useful.

  • When given a plan, ask yourself what kinds of functions or adjectives something could have that would make it useful, without drawing a picture of what that thing is.

    • One time at a Rationality Minicamp someone asked if there was a sceptre-like object. Most people said no, and I said yes, even though I didn't know where it was. I was able to quickly find one in the room because I ran the algorithm of “find the cylinder-ish thing in this room” rather than the algorithm of asking myself what cylinder-like things there are, then go get it.