Lucky Charms and Good Fortunes

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Ellen Weinstein, a New Yorker and longtime resident of the Lower East Side, has been illustrating for 25 years, with her first commission coming from The New York Times Book Review. Travel is her greatest source of inspiration: “I love having the opportunity to meet and work with other artists internationally,” she says. Her new book, Recipes for Good Luck (Chronicle Books), “bottles the singular recipes for success of leading creatives, politicians, scientists and athletes who made their own luck.” It lists the unique practices from quirky superstitions to performance rituals as well as creative processes, and curious habits of a slew of influential people. I asked her about these nostrums and such and here’s what she has to say.

I think we all have superstitions and rituals. I’ve got plenty. What triggered this book? Or are you too superstitious to tell?A few years ago, I was illustrating an article on superstitions and recognized some of my own behavior in the story. The subject struck a chord with me, and I wanted to follow my own curiosity and see where it would go. The journey started as a side project and culminated in this book.

I am too superstitious to reveal many of my own quirks, but I will share that until I received the advance copies of this book, only my publisher, my husband and a small handful of friends even knew about it. Perhaps some of that superstition is due to my cultural upbringing as a Jewish New Yorker, but my epitaph will read: “Something can still go wrong.”

What is the difference between superstitions and rituals, anyway?I think of superstition as a fear that unless one adheres to a specific ritual, practice or has their lucky charm, a great misfortune will occur. Alfred Hitchcock feared his movies would flop if he did not make a cameo appearance in them. This also manifests itself in specific fears, i.e., actor John Wayne feared a hat on the bed and Lucille Ball had a fear of birds.

Rituals can provide a way to focus on the work at hand: Thom Yorke, the front man for Radiohead, stands on his head before performing. Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel) would go to the closet where he kept his collection of 300 hats and choose one to wear when faced with writer’s block.

There is a lot of research that required getting into the heads of many famous people. How’d you do that? The research was extensive for this project. I listened to and read many interviews, skimmed biographies and conducted elaborate searches of articles and living subjects’ social media accounts. All of my research was only possible due to the public figures that were willing to share their private practices.

Did you find any utterly surprising examples in your research?Some of the most surprising examples were the ones that challenged my own assumptions about the subjects. I would not look at supermodel Heidi Klum and think that she carried a pouch with her baby teeth in it for good luck or that NASA had a lucky charm as well.

It is easy to mythologize famous figures and their accomplishments, and I found it refreshing to see how many had behavior that resembled my own.

Conversely, what are the most common superstitions and rituals?The most common superstitions and rituals are those involving a specific number. Gustav Mahler feared naming his ninth symphony by number, and pop star Taylor swift considers thirteen to be her lucky number. Serena Williams bounces the ball five times before her first serve, to name a few.

What are yours? And did any new ones arise in the creation of this book?Although I already had superstitions and rituals prior to creating this book, during the course of working on it, I developed even more. At times I felt like a medical student who develops the symptoms of what they are studying; it was all very meta. Like many of the figures described in the book, I found that adhering to a certain ritual and schedule allowed me to relax and focus on the work. I have my publication day ritual ready; hopefully it will bring me luck.

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About Steven HellerSteven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →