bobfrankCornell economist Robert Frank, author of The Darwin Economy and The Economic Naturalist's Field Guide, has written a new book, Success and Luck on the role of luck in success and the importance of how people make sense of that dynamic. Below are snippets from a couple of pieces he's written recently for The Atlantic and, based on (or excerpts of) the book.

We are also planning on doing a Q&A with Professor Frank in the coming weeks and we'd love to include your questions, so please leave them in the comments or email me directly.


I’m a lucky man. Perhaps the most extreme example of my considerable good fortune occurred one chilly Ithaca morning in November 2007, while I was playing tennis with my longtime friend and collaborator, the Cornell psychologist Tom Gilovich. He later told me that early in the second set, I complained of feeling nauseated. The next thing he knew, I was lying motionless on the court.He yelled for someone to call 911, and then started pounding on my chest—something he’d seen many times in movies but had never been trained to do. He got a cough out of me, but seconds later I was again motionless with no pulse. Very shortly, an ambulance showed up.

Ithaca’s ambulances are dispatched from the other side of town, more than five miles away. How did this one arrive so quickly? By happenstance, just before I collapsed, ambulances had been dispatched to two separate auto accidents close to the tennis center. Since one of them involved no serious injuries, an ambulance was able to peel off and travel just a few hundred yards to me. EMTs put electric paddles on my chest and rushed me to our local hospital. There, I was loaded onto a helicopter and flown to a larger hospital in Pennsylvania, where I was placed on ice overnight.

Doctors later told me that I’d suffered an episode of sudden cardiac arrest. Almost 90 percent of people who experience such episodes don’t survive, and the few who do are typically left with significant impairments. And for three days after the event, my family tells me, I spoke gibberish. But on day four, I was discharged from the hospital with a clear head. Two weeks later, I was playing tennis with Tom again.
If that ambulance hadn’t happened to have been nearby, I would be dead.

Not all random events lead to favorable outcomes, of course. Mike Edwards is no longer alive because chance frowned on him.

vox headline

Consider this thought experiment: Which experience would a wealthy car enthusiast prefer — driving a Porsche 911 Turbo (purchase price $150,000) on smooth, well-maintained highways or driving a Ferrari F12 Berlinetta (purchase price $333,000) on roads riddled with foot-deep potholes?

It's an easy question. Although some car buffs might quibble, I'll assume for the sake of argument that the Ferrari would be judged the better car if both could be driven on good roads. But it wouldn't be much better, since the $150,000 Porsche already has most of the design features that affect performance significantly.

The economist's law of diminishing returns operates here with a vengeance. Beyond a certain point, it reminds us, the cost of achieving additional quality improvements rises very steeply. So if the Ferrari enjoys an edge, it's at most a tiny one. How, then, could anyone argue with a straight face that it would be more pleasing to drive the Ferrari on pothole-ridden roads than to drive the Porsche on well-maintained ones?

Yet among the super wealthy, the actual quality mix of cars and highways in the United States more closely resembles Ferraris on potholes than Porsches on smooth asphalt. That's puzzling, since the latter combination could be achieved at much lower total expense.

Read the article at