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Success and Luck: Inseparable or Identical?

Robert Frank
Robert Frank

Returning to the Hill for the first time in more than a decade, economist Robert Frank spoke on Nov. 5 about the relationship between success and luck. The lecture was sponsored by the Levitt Center. A prolific author and co-director of the Paduano Seminar in business ethics at NYU’s Stern School of Business, Frank gave a lecture that was an engaging mélange of economic theory, personal anecdotes and examples from well-known cultural events. Drawing on these, he asserted that success in life is 100 percent dependent on luck.

To understand this radical concept, Frank began by explaining the political landscape surrounding the role of luck in business. While liberals maintain that luck is crucial to success, conservatives regard this notion as blasphemy, arguing that success comes from hard work and talent. Frank explains that while these are factors, there’s a matrix of forces that impact every action. He specifically points out factors that an individual cannot control, yet have a determining affect on them.

To illustrate this point, Frank brings to light the bizarre phenomenon that 90 percent of professional hockey players are born between January and June. He explained that this is because children born earlier in the year are on the older side of members in their league. Being bigger gives them a physical advantage and makes them stand out during practice, which leads to more playing time, increasing their skill, and ultimately making it easier for them to get recruited. Despite being uncontrollable and arbitrary, one’s birthday ends up affecting the individual in a profound way.

From our birthday to our genetic sequence, luck plays an integral role at every moment in our life. This has led some social scientists to the notion that we have limited control over our lives, the vast number of decisions being determined by pre-existing factors. Frank explains that the combination of our past actions and current circumstances allow us to believe that there’s an inevitability in the path our lives take, yet actually this outcome is simply the one that occurred out of hundreds of possibilities at every point in our lives.

While acknowledging the influential role of luck, Frank quoted Thomas Jefferson who said, “I am a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it.” No one can alter the particular circumstances their own luck has brought them, yet Frank urged the audience not to rely on luck to bring them what they want. Instead, he believes that a strong work ethic, more than talent or luck, will bring about the changes you want to see.

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