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‘Beginner’s Luck’ Hardly Ever Involves Actual Beginners

Let’s distinguish between chance and actually being good at something

Beginner’s luck is exactly what it sounds like — when you’re better than you have any right to be at something you’ve never tried before. It’s the perfect intersection of chance favoring the unskilled, and if it happens to you, it’s unforgettable. One night, two beers deep, I agreed to play my first game of shuffleboard and crushed my competition—the kind of men who play this stuff at bars all the time—as if I’d been playing for years. I left them bewildered, and took home not just the victory, but also the heady, smug high that can only come from being effortlessly great at something for no discernible reason. But the trouble is, you can’t replicate it. Or can you?

When you look at how society uses the term beginner’s luck, you’ll see it’s typically associated with games or lotteries that rely entirely on chance. The recent headline “Beginner’s Luck for Canadian Woman Playing Mega Millions Game” is about a woman who had never tried her hand at that particular lottery before. “I like playing the lottery when I visit the states, but had never played Mega Millions before,” winner Michelle Faysal told The Macomb Daily. “The clerk explained the game to me and I bought five easy pick tickets.”

So the idea here is that Faysal had never played the Mega Millions, tried it for the first time, and won. Even though there is arguably some strategy to winning the lottery — playing a lot, using computer-generated numbers — we presume Faysal’s luck is entirely to chance and first-timeness. Theoretically, though, a beginner stands the same chance as anyone else.

In another recent news story, 12-year-old Minnesota girl Brita Lawrence’s victory finding a medallion hidden in a tree — after the seventh clue was released — is attributed to beginner’s luck. Though others in the community had been searching for the medallion for years, it was Lawrence’s first time searching. It’s not really beginner’s luck, though, given that she had to be smart enough to decipher the clues.

Likewise, Colorado girl Macey Sandburg’s first time showing horses led to a slew of blue ribbons, attributed also to beginner’s luck, yet she had to have some skill with horses to even place. And this writer whose first-ever submission to the Chicken Soup for the Soul series, about her calico cat, was accepted, also credits beginner’s luck. Odd, though, because presumably she also had to be a good writer in the first place to be chosen. The examples abound: The recent winner of the beauty pageant Miss Kool-Aid Days smashed and grabbed the title in her first competition ever, also considered beginner’s luck. But she’d studied the competitions for years before entering, not to mention presumably needed to be both pretty and poised to win.

Finally, a group of novices recently touring a bocce club quickly demonstrated they could throw the steel balls better than the club veterans — attributed to beginner’s luck. This is perhaps the only example of these recent headlines that makes sense.

Beginner’s luck has to be a situation where you have no prior experience doing something but somehow manage to rule at it. The success has to be random. Lucky.

Yet we insist on calling things beginner’s luck that are actually skill and chance lining up. If a looter stumbles onto 12th-century gilded plates the first time they drag a metal detector across a particular hill and calls it beginner’s luck, it’s lucky, maybe, but not the beginner kind. They’ve been doing this sort of thing for years. Likewise when a golfer wins a major title on his first attempt — it’s not his first attempt at golf. Just this competition.

In a post a few years ago, Lifehacker argued that beginner’s luck doesn’t actually exist at all. Instead, it’s a few factors at work. One is confirmation bias — you believe it’s possible to win without being good at something, so you look only for examples that support this, and omit the ones that don’t. Other theories behind beginner’s luck suggest that what’s really at work is approaching an activity with a beginner’s mind. In other words, as a novice, you aren’t as restricted by strategy or knowing too much, which means you’re free from the high pressure and overthinking that could doom even the seasoned player. Less anxiety and a more open mind lead to a potentially better performance. After all, experts choke all the time, they argue.

A Reddit thread asking readers the best example they’d seen of beginner’s luck includes more accurate examples of the phenomenon. One commenter was offered 20 bucks in high school to make a half-court shot. “I hit it,” they write. “Took another one right after, hit that as well. Still not really sure how I did it.”

Another commenter said they sank the 8-ball on the break. Nearly all the comments that follow involve games or hobbies where chance minus skill paved the way for an unlikely victory. “Flushed on my first hand of poker,” is one comment. “When I was 7 my family went on vacation,” begins another. “My dad had been fishing all morning on the dock and caught nothing. literally out there five minutes to check up on him, do one cast. Catch a bluegill. The look he gave me was something I’ll never forget.”

Of course, these could all be examples of confirmation bias or faulty memory. But that doesn’t necessarily mean beginner’s luck isn’t real. It just means every once in a while you do something you should suck at and happen to be amazing.

That said, Lifehacker goes on to tell readers how to fabricate that same allegedly nonexistent beginner’s luck for yourself by, among other things, throwing out the obvious strategies to win, or by trying to “think like a kid.”

But that seems highly unlikely. The very nature of beginner’s luck is a fluke, so it’s probably impossible to cultivate, much less replicate. I’ve since tried to play shuffleboard again, and I don’t know exactly what went wrong — maybe I had one beer too many, or one beer too few, or felt like I suddenly had to be good to prove my first attempt wasn’t a fluke. Instead I choked. If I could do it again, it wouldn’t be beginner’s luck. It would mean I’m a natural at shuffleboard.

Only I’m not actually good at shuffleboard. And that’s totally okay. In order to be actually good at it, I’d have to try all the time and really care. Since that’s never going to happen, I prefer instead to put all my eggs in the beginner’s luck basket. If I just keep never trying and wait it out, odds are it’s bound to happen again sometime, right?