Can You Learn to be Lucky?

How to Take Eleventy Billion Years to Write a Book

Step 1: Live in Buenos Aires for a few years. Miss everyone terribly. Move back

Step 1: Live in Buenos Aires for a few years. Miss everyone terribly. Move back to Portland, Oregon… at the height of the Great Recession.

Step 2: Have trouble getting a job. Be broke. Feel awkward reaching out to people. Live annoyingly far away. Don’t have a car. Get really depressed.

Step 3: Start missing the guy you left in Buenos Aires. The one who keeps calling. Get back together. Realize that you can only be together if you’re married because of the green card issue. Ask him to marry you.

Step 4: Start working a temp job. Save money for your fiancé’s green card stuff. Remain really depressed and isolated and try to figure out why you’re where you are: 29 and living with your mother. You do not see an exit.

Step 5: Remember the existence of your brain; it’s gotten you out of trouble before. Start reading everything you possibly can to figure out how to turn things around. Remember the existence of your psychology degree; thinking about thinking is interesting and can help you optimize your thinking.

Step 5: Learn that the new girl at your temp job just graduated from Oxford with her Master’s degree. She now earns $8 an hour as a data entry clerk.

Step 6: Accept the fact that the world is chaotic and random. In addition to your psychology reading, start learning about randomness and probability and math. Complexity theory and network science are now things in your world.

Step 7: One day, when you’re reading both Outliers and The Black Swan, you take a break to go online. Somehow, your rapturous cascade of clicks has taken you to John Mayer’s Twitter account. There you are, reading the douchebag Tweets of this millionaire while the Oxford-educated co-worker whose name you forget is taking the bus to make $8 an hour. You are, too.

Step 8: You have just been slapped by the cold, chaotic, random hand of the universe. The explanations for life put forth by Outliers and The Black Swan are wanting.

Step 9: Write a book proposal.

Step 10: Sell it.

Step 11: Interview the researcher who eviscerated Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide in Nature, a preeminent science publication, and called on researchers to do a better job at communicating their findings. Get lectured for 45 minutes on the fact that I “obviously don’t know what I’m doing.”

Step 12: Cry for days.

Step 13: Spend the next several years reading and researching.

Step 14: Become furious every time you read about how women’s subjective efforts are rated lower than equivalent efforts by men. Notice the impact of the “Thinking While Female” effect: success manuals and “Next Big Idea” books are written by men. Breakout female authors, you notice, write about emotions (Brené Brown, Gretchen Rubin), relationships (Esther Perel), personal finance (Suze Orman), or include deeply personal confessions embedded into the general narrative (Rebecca Skloot, Susan Cain).

Step 15: Spend your entire advance before you even start writing. Rack up tens of thousands of dollars in credit card debt because you really want to get the facts right.

Step 16: Anxiety. Write using Scrivener, which has footnote settings that allow you to write and cite without realizing that about 1/3 of your printed book will be footnotes.

Step 17: Really immerse yourself in the research. Become an annoying dispenser of psychology theories. Spend the rest of your time at the gym.

Step 18: Go through 3 editors, and the patience of your agent.

Step 19: Turn in your book. Anxiety. Will Adam Kepecs eviscerate me in Nature?, you wonder.

Step 20: Wonder what the hell you are going to do with your life, now that your brain has been turned into a walking Works Cited list and your bank balance is -$40,000.

Step 21: Get a deus ex machina-type call from Chip Heath, who wants to know if you’d collaborate with him on a project.

Step 22: Spend all of the time that you should be using to market your book to write something with Chip.

Step 23: Personal tragedy: sick relatives. Professional vibes: workaholism. You only stop work with Chip for a few hours to attend your grandmother’s funeral.

Step 24: Spend your book’s publication day crying on your couch.

Step 25: Burnout. Spend all the money you just made to pay off your credit card bills. But also take your mom on vacation.

Step 26: Realize that your dynamic of working nonstop to please an older white man just so you can stop drowning in debt—at the ultimate expense of your physical and mental health—is an encapsulation of present-day working conditions.

Step 27: Spend the next few years attempting to achieve work-life balance while collaborating with a perpetually dissatisfied next-level workaholic who treats you as a half-assistant, half-underling. Constantly remind yourself of how lucky you are just to have this opportunity.

Step 28: Laugh. Writing a book on luck has given you an extreme sort of luck, a book deal with a big shot. Yet your book—which gave you the very tools for this very thing—did not sell many copies.

Step 29: Realize that everything in life is a mixed bag, and there is no such thing as a free lunch. Realize that the way you are being treated at work is taking a serious toll on your mental health.

Step 30: Wonder if other people will buy your first book once book #2 comes out, your name next to Big Shot’s name. Wonder what the silver lining will be. Wonder what the lessons are: there are always lessons.

Step 31: Turn in book #2. Get cut out of Simon and Schuster’s marketing talks.

Step 32: Realize that everyone you know whose life revolves around work is a horribly unpleasant person with no life outside of work, which explains why they never felt a pull away from work. Begin to shake off the effects of being surrounded by this mentality for years.

Step 33: The silver lining, you realize, is a deeper understanding and appreciation of the fact that work is not life. Work is a way to make a living, express one’s passions. Remember how much you loved the people you met while traveling. Vow to do that in the future. Vow to consume less so that you can work less.

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