Robert H Frank writes: 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. Edwards, formerly a cellist in the British pop band the Electric Light Orchestra, was driving on a rural road in England in 2010 when a 1,300-pound bale of hay rolled down a steep hillside and landed on his van, crushing him. By all accounts, he was a decent, peaceful man. That a bale of hay snuffed out his life was bad luck, pure and simple.
Most people will concede that I’m fortunate to have survived and that Edwards was unfortunate to have perished. But in other arenas, randomness can play out in subtler ways, causing us to resist explanations that involve luck. In particular, many of us seem uncomfortable with the possibility that personal success might depend to any significant extent on chance. As E. B. White once wrote, “Luck is not something you can mention in the presence of self-made men.” [Continue reading…]