Debate Magazine

Luck

By Stevemiranda

I just finished Peter Sims’s awesome book, “Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge From Small Discoveries.” Here’s one of my favorite passages, with a short reflection below.

[Research scientist Dr. Richard] Wiseman sought out differences between self-described “lucky” and “unlucky” people. He performed in-depth interviews, asked people to complete diaries, and administered a battery of tests, experiments, and questionnaires. So, for instance, in one experiment, Wiseman gave both self-described lucky and unlucky people a newspaper and asked them to count the number of photographs it contained. He found that it took people in the unlucky group roughly two minutes to complete the task, whereas it took people in the lucky group just seconds. “Why?” Wiseman recounts. “Because the second page of the newspaper contained the message: “Stop counting. There are forty-three photographs in this newspaper.” The message took up half a page and the typeface was more than two inches high, nearly impossible to miss. According to Wiseman, “It was staring everyone straight in the face, but the unlucky people tended to miss it and the lucky people tended to spot it.” Even more, as Wiseman describes it, “For fun, I placed a second large message halfway through the newspaper: ‘Stop counting. Tell the experimenter you have seen this and win $250.’ Again, the unlucky people missed the opportunity because they were still to busy looking for photographs.”

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Dr. Wiseman’s research suggests that what we call “luck” is much more scientific than we realize. A lot of it is merely keeping your eyes open to possibility. In school, we do kids harm by allowing them to put up blinders so they see only a limited set of options. I have to get through Algebra I. Or, I’m sorry I don’t have time for that, I have to get an “A” on my Chemistry lab report. Activities that students do because they’re passionate about them take a backseat to the things they feel they have to do. Legitimate pursuits are narrowly defined by the core curriculum: Language Arts, Social Studies, Mathematics, and Science.

Even the core curriculum itself is stifling. A student may be interested in slam poetry, but her Language Arts teacher is making her read Moby Dick. A student may be interested in challenging a city ordinance banning all-ages music concerts at his favorite venue, but his Social Studies teacher is requiring him to memorize important Civil War battles.

And if you’re interested in making hip-hop music or building a canoe? Sorry. There’s no place for that in school. Now, open your textbook to Chapter 7 and answer the “Questions for Discussion” on page 178.

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Last week, I wrote about a PSCS student who was lucky enough to run into his childhood heroes before a professional skateboarding competition at the Seattle Center. The whole thing proved to be a profound learning experience, and it had very little to do with luck. He has teachers that encourage him to pursue activities that give him joy. When you’re open to a life of possibility, amazing things tend to happen.

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