Don’t Tell Your Friends They’re Lucky

Cornell professor of economics Robert Frank says he’s alive today because of “pure dumb luck.” In 2007, he collapsed on a tennis court, struck down by what was later diagnosed as a case of sudden cardiac death, something only 2 percent of victims survive. Frank survived because, even though the nearest hospital was 5 miles away, an ambulance just happened to be responding to another call a few hundred yards away at the time. Since the other call wasn’t as serious, the ambulance was able to change course and save Frank. Paddles were put on him in record time. He was rushed to the local hospital, then flown by helicopter to a larger one where he was put on ice overnight. Most survivors of similar episodes are left with significant cognitive and physical impairments. Frank was back on the tennis court just two weeks later.

Robert FrankEllen McCollister

Frank says his research ideas often come from his own experience, and his work on luck is no exception. His latest book, Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy, argues that the role of luck in life, and specifically in economic success, is not as widely appreciated as it should be. The book claims that if the prosperous were more cognizant of luck’s role in their success they would be more supportive of government efforts to spread opportunity, and of the higher taxes they’d have to pay as a result.

Frank’s other writings include the books The Winner-Take-All Society (with Philip J. Cook), The Darwin Economy, and Principles of Economics (with Ben S. Bernanke.) as well as an economics column that has run in The New York Times for over a decade. I spoke to him on the phone recently while he waited for his car to be repaired at a Syracuse dealership. He was warm and engaging and interested in my own experiences with luck and success, answering my questions as if he had all the time in the world.

What evidence is there that people don’t appreciate the role of luck in their lives as much as they should?

If people want to see a vivid example of that, I would steer them to the website that chronicled the reactions of voters to two political campaign speeches in 2012, one by Elizabeth Warren, the other by Barack Obama. The content of the speeches was essentially the same and if you read both transcripts carefully you’d say

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