Robert H. Frank (@econnaturalist) is the HJ Louis Professor of Economics at Cornell University and author of Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy. [Note: This is a previously broadcast episode from the vault that we felt deserved a fresh listen!]
What We Discuss with Robert H. Frank:
- As we strive to achieve success, there are natural limits on how hard we can work and how smart we can be. There’s no denying that luck plays a part in this achievement.
- Understand the role of luck, talent, and hard work in the overall formula.
- Discover why we tend to minimize the role of luck in our success.
- Find out how to maximize our luck in life by way of context outside of talent and work.
- Learn new ways to look at the luck factor and turn it to our advantage.
- And much more…
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If you’re listening to this show right now on the smartphone that you bought with your credit card in a western country and you’re thinking, “Gee, I just can’t catch a break,” the truth is you have caught many breaks — possibly by birthright — just to find yourself where you are right now. And as random as such breaks might seem, you probably can’t help but wonder if there’s a way to maximize your proximity to their fickle visitations.
Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy author Robert H. Frank joins us to talk about the part luck plays in anyone’s success story — a quality seriously underrated or overrated depending on who’s telling that story — and how we can better increase the chances it will smile on us. Listen, learn, and enjoy!
Listen to this episode in its entirety to learn more about the availability heuristic, how one might gently raise the subject of luck around a successful person without being kicked out of the top hat lobster party mansion (e.g., avoid using the phrase “you didn’t build that”), the consequences of bad decisions for people with money vs. people without money, how even the most talented and hardest working can be undone by somebody with a certain amount of luck, how technology has increased the role of luck, how the month of your birth influences your luck (it has nothing to do with the zodiac), how we can be more open to receiving the good luck that comes our way, how even bad luck can serve us, and lots more. [Note: This is a previously broadcast episode from the vault that we felt deserved a fresh listen!]
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Thanks, Robert H. Frank!
If you enjoyed this session with Robert H. Frank, let him know by clicking on the link below and sending him a quick shout out at Twitter:
And if you want us to answer your questions on one of our upcoming weekly Feedback Friday episodes, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Resources from This Episode:
- Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy by Robert H. Frank | Amazon
- Why Luck Matters More Than You Might Think by Robert H. Frank | The Atlantic
- Robert H. Frank | Cornell
- Robert H. Frank | Twitter
- “You Didn’t Build That.” | Wikipedia
- John Locke’s Labor Theory of Property | Wikipedia
- Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell | Amazon
- Is Justin Timberlake a Product of Cumulative Advantage? | The New York Times Magazine
Robert H. Frank | The Myth of Meritocracy (Episode 525)
Jordan Harbinger: Coming up on The Jordan Harbinger Show.
[00:00:01] Robert H. Frank: If you're persistent, if you keep attacking the goal again, and again, you're much more likely to succeed. The really key step is to get unusually good at something. In a winner-take-all economy, it's the people who are best at what they do, who are going to get the biggest group. And you're not going to get to be the best at what you do, unless you find something that you really love doing because otherwise, it's going to be just too difficult to stick with it and put in the necessary effort to do that.
[00:00:36] Jordan Harbinger: Welcome to the show. I'm Jordan Harbinger. On The Jordan Harbinger Show, we decode the stories, secrets, and skills of the world's most fascinating people. We've got in-depth conversations with people at the top of their game, astronauts, entrepreneurs, spies, psychologists, even the occasional rocket scientist, extreme athlete, or neuroscientists. Each episode turns our guests' wisdom into practical advice that you can use to build a deeper understanding on how the world works and become a better critical thinker.
[00:01:02] If you're new to the show, or you're looking for a handy way to tell your friends about it, we have episode starter packs, which are collections of your favorite episodes, organized by popular topics to help new listeners get a taste of everything we do here on the show. Just visit jordanharbinger.com/start to get started or to help somebody else get started, which of course, I always appreciate.
[00:01:22] Today, one from the vault, Robert H. Frank, he's a professor at Cornell and the author of Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy. This one is all about the role of luck, talent, and hard work, and in what balance each of those achieves success. It might not be quite the mixture that you think. And many of us tend to minimize the role luck in our success. We'll discuss why and how that works. And we'll explore how to maximize our luck in life. Of course, by way of concepts, outside that of talent and work and ways to look at the luck factor and turn it to our advantage.
[00:01:53] If you're wondering how I managed to book all these great authors, thinkers, and creators every single week, it is because of my network. I'm teaching you how to build your network for free. I don't need your credit card or payment information and there's no upsells, I promise. That's over at jordanharbinger.com/course. And by the way, most of the guests on the show already subscribed to the course, they contribute to the course. Come join us, you'll be in smart company where you belong. Now, here's Robert H. Frank.
[00:02:22] Well, thanks for being here with us today as well. And it seems like speaking of luck, you're actually kind of lucky to be here after what had happened on a tennis court one day. Why don't we start with that?
[00:02:33] Robert H. Frank: Sure. I was playing tennis with my long-time friend and co-author. Tom Gilovich is his name. He's a psychologist here at Cornell. It was November. It was cold out. He tells me that during the second set, as we sat during a changeover, I complained about feeling nauseated. And then the next thing he knew, he tells me I had rolled off the bench. I'm lying still on the tennis court, no breath, no pulse. He realized that something gravely is the matter. He flipped me over onto my back. He called out for others to call 911, and then he started pounding on my chest.
[00:03:09] And he said that after a long time, what seemed like a long time, he got a cough out of me, but then I went limp again. And he was about to give up hope when in through the front door of the tennis facility burst the EMT crew. They cut my shirt off me. They put the paddles on me. They loaded me onto a gurney and took me to the hospital in an ambulance. From there. I was flown to a larger hospital in Pennsylvania. They put me on ice overnight. Three or four days later, I was told by doctors that I had suffered an episode of sudden cardiac death. They don't understand exactly what causes that to happen, but most of the time when it happens, unless you get immediate attention, you die right there on the spot.
[00:03:51] The fact that I made it was attributable to an extraordinarily low odds event. It was that before I collapsed on the court, there had been two auto accidents that occurred near the tennis center. Ambulances had been dispatched from town, which was five or six miles away. Normally, it would take 30, 40 minutes to get an ambulance to a site out in the country. One of the accidents wasn't serious. And so when the call came in that they had a serious case at the tennis center, the driver of that second ambulance was able to peel off, come to my aid, only a few hundred yards from where he was, except for that immediate attention, I would be among the 98 percent of people who don't survive episodes of cardiac deaths.
[00:04:36] Jordan Harbinger: Wow. So two other people's terrible luck in that they got into a car accident combined with your terrible luck in that you've got something that's 98 percent fatal, far away from medical attention combined to create what is relatively speaking, a piece of good luck for you.
[00:04:52] Robert H. Frank: Exactly. Now, my late mother would have said I was destined to survive. You know, that's not the way I've ever thought about things like that. I think I was the beneficiary of pure dumb luck, but people have different ways of parsing events like that. And I don't quarrel with anybody's point of view on that. I think I was lucky.
[00:05:11] Jordan Harbinger: Right. Yeah. I would imagine destiny doesn't figure into your calculations as an economist too often.
[00:05:17] Robert H. Frank: Yeah. I think we're low on the destiny scale as a profession.
[00:05:22] Jordan Harbinger: Why is the topic important? I mean, it seems strange to start a show about luck and success with you almost dying and other people getting into car crashes, but the topic itself is important. Because there's a lot of discussion around luck, both in the political sphere, in the business sphere, in the economic sphere, you can really separate those things, as well as in our own minds. We're just kind of bad as humans in estimating what is attributable to luck? What luck even is? We're not really sure a lot of the time. Why is this something that you've dedicated time to studying?
[00:05:58] Robert H. Frank: One of the themes in my book is that people tend to overlook the importance of chance events in life. I begin the book by describing a number of times when I've been affected by chance events. And it's not my point to try to suggest that I'm more observant than other people, that I notice these things and most people don't. It's just that if you get hit over the head, hard enough by luck, you're going to notice that. Somebody wins the lottery, we say that person was really lucky. There was a musician, one of the founding members of the electric light orchestra in the UK driving along a rural road in England, Mike Edwards, he had done nothing wrong, apparently a 1300-pound bale of hay broke loose from its moorings on the hillside. It started tumbling down, gathered speed, hit a berm, catapulted over a high fence and landed right on the top of the cab of his truck. And it killed him instantly. I think he was unlucky to have been there at that moment.
[00:06:56] Jordan Harbinger: Yes, sounds like it. Yeah.
[00:06:57] Robert H. Frank: So we noticed vivid examples like that but when luck plays out as it normally does in life, it's in far more subtle ways, and we tend not to notice it's important in those cases. We see successful people, 30 years into their careers, almost all of them are hardworking and talented. There are a few examples to the contrary. You can think of lip-syncing boy bands or various others who have succeeded without much hard work or talent, but most of the people who make it big really do work hard. They really are talented. And then it comes time to look back and try to explain to themselves, why did I succeed? You know, that's what we do as people we construct narratives about our lives.
[00:07:40] And we do so from the things that are most accessible in memory. So if you've been successful, you've probably gotten up every day and worked hard. You can remember countless examples of doing that, even times when you didn't feel like it, which is when you're most likely to remember examples. You can remember all the hard problems you solved because you solved so many of them over those years. You remember all the formidable opponents that you had to vanquish along your path to the top.
[00:08:08] So all those things are part of your narrative, the teacher who kept you out of trouble, when you were in the 11th grade, you've forgotten about her. Maybe you got an early promotion because there was a colleague who was slightly better qualified than you who couldn't accept it because he had to care for an ailing parents. So there are just natural tendencies in human cognition to remember the obvious causes of events that we see and to overlook things that don't happen frequently or as vividly. There's a tendency that we tend to focus on headwinds that we face. Tom Gilovich, my friend I mentioned earlier, has done research on this specific topic.
[00:08:49] So you're riding a bike into a heavy wind. You're conscious of that wind and how it's making life difficult for you every inch of the way. The course changes direction. Now, you've got the wind at your back. You're delighted to have gotten out of that headwind and you're happy for, what? 20 seconds. And then after that, it's no longer in your conscious focus. You've got a wind at your back, but you're not thinking about that because nothing you have to do. You have to work against it.
[00:09:19] And it's the same with events in life. If you had to battle against an obstacle you're hyper-conscious of that, you remember it, you include it in your story. If you had a wind at your back, that's something that you just don't notice. And so I think in complete innocence, successful people tend to look back on their lives and say, "Wow, I did it all myself."
[00:09:40] I paid $500 to use one sentence in the beginning of my book. It was a line from an E.B. White's essay originally published in the 1930s. It was, "Luck is not a subject you can mention in the presence of self-made men." That seem to capture the difficulty of people comprehending. Yes, despite the fact that you were talented and worked hard, you probably had a few breaks along the way.
[00:10:04] Jordan Harbinger: Right. We see this in the availability heuristic, where it's essentially a cognitive shortcut that causes us to estimate that an outcome is based on how readily we can remember something. So of course, any successful career track, any successful life course will have hard work, talent, and a little bit of chance or luck.
[00:10:25] Robert H. Frank: Right.
[00:10:25] Jordan Harbinger: And we know we worked hard. We know we got into a good school. We know we studied 10 hours a day. We know we saved money from our first job and reinvested it into the company. And then in my case it would be easy to forget that, well, yeah, also the economy tanked, which caused my firm to not want to fire me or lay us off, but to pay us for a year, even though they couldn't give us any work. And also I wasn't born in Zimbabwe and I wasn't born with any major health ailments that impede me from working hard and staying up late and putting in many hours. And you're right. People who are self-made, so-called self-made, just hate acknowledging the role of luck in their lives and in their success. Why do you think that is?
[00:11:07] Robert H. Frank: You know, you could be cynical about that and say, "Oh, they're just trying to defend their claim to all the money that's come their way." If they would admit for a moment that luck played a role in their success then others might be more inclined to try to take some of their profits away from them. I don't think you need to go there to really understand what's going on. I think just as you indicated, just now, if you would ask a successful business person, "How would things have played out for you if you'd been born in Somalia or some other war torn country?" They won't insist. Most of them won't that they would have done just as well. They recognize that they were lucky not to have been born in those circumstances. And it really depends on how you raise the subject in the first place. How people will react to it?
[00:11:57] Do you recall the speeches from the 2012 campaign? There was one by the president and one by Elizabeth Warren. They were essentially the same speech in substance. They were trying to remind people that if they were successful, they hadn't done it entirely on their own. They'd ship their goods to market on roads. The rest of us helped pay for it. They hired workers that the community helped to educate. They ship stuff here and there using networks that were totally built with no assistance from them personally. They would, on reflection, agree with that. But what people seem to hear in those speeches, they came to be known as the "you didn't build that" speeches.
[00:12:39] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[00:12:39] Robert H. Frank: They thought they were being told, "Oh, you're successful. Well, you don't deserve it. You have a lofty position. You don't really merit that position." That wasn't the message of those speeches. The speeches were trying to just reinforce the idea that if you succeeded, it wasn't just because of things you had done yourself but community had a hand in it too. And part of the social contract is to pay forward. So that the next group that comes along will have its shot at success. That's the problem.
[00:13:07] If you tell people that they were lucky to be in a certain environment, they get angry. What I discovered, and this was quite by accident, was that if you take a slightly different attack, if you say to a successful friend, "Can you think of any examples of good luck you enjoyed along your path to the top?" You don't get an angry or defensive reaction if you just ask that question. People think about it, their eyes light up when they can think of an example of good luck that they have. They want to tell you about it. And in the act of telling you about it, that kindles a memory of another example of luck that they enjoyed. And then they're telling you about three or four, and then suddenly they're engaged in a conversation about why are we making this investment or that investment so that the next group can have the same shot I had in becoming a success. So it really depends on how you launch the conversation. You've got to be careful not to appear to be saying, "Oh, you're successful. You don't deserve that," because that's not the message.
[00:14:06] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. It seems like we overestimate our role in the good things that happen to us often enough, but what effects does this have on us and on society at large? I mean, first and foremost, it seems really obvious that, especially in light of recent political events, that the consequences of bad decisions are very different for people with money and those without money. So that's an obvious effect, right? When we're looking at this, what else happens when we overestimate our role in the good things that happen to us? How does this affect everyone else and ourselves in a negative way?
[00:14:38] Robert H. Frank: Sure. There is a tendency to feel that if you make something with your own hands, that it's yours. John Locke wrote about this hundreds of years ago. Every person has a natural right to the property of his own efforts. And so I think when you engage in an activity and the activity succeeds, and you earn a lot of money from doing it, there's a natural sense that you're entitled to keep that money. In fact, we all live in societies, all societies at the very least, all successful ones have governments. Governments are expensive. They do things that we can't do any other way, really, besides through collective action and that's got to be paid for, which means we have taxes to pay for the things that have to be done collectively. And how do we get those taxes? They have to be levied on people in a way that they can't volunteer not to pay it. Why shouldn't taxes be purely voluntary? Because no one would pay taxes if they were purely voluntary. So the complaint that taxation is theft is really kind of an empty rhetorical move. I mean, there have to be taxes.
[00:15:46] The only question is whom should we tax how much? And so on. So you don't have a right to the money that comes your way. Pre-tax what you have a right to is the money that comes your way post tax and how much the tax is. That's a democratically decided question. We elect representatives. They deliberate, they decide what the tax rate should be. So what you have a legitimate, moral claim to is your after tax income. And I think the natural tendency to believe that "if you made it, it's yours," has really put some huge fortunes under the shadow of a sense of entitlement, but the fortunes to keep every cent of by the people who earned them. Really, we have to be more open to the idea that what's ours to keep is what we decide as a collective body should be ours to keep after we attend the tasks that we want to do collectively.
[00:16:43] Jordan Harbinger: There's a lot of cool concepts in the book that look like the butterfly effect, right? When twins might take the SAT on different days, slightly different moods, they get different scores. So they end up with a different career path and all that stuff amplifies over time. And that's just kind of a microcosm of what can happen with luck in different fields, with all other things being equal. One of the super interesting points that I'd love to hear you speak to is that even when it comes down to talent and work ethic, often the most talented and hardest working people can be undone by somebody with a certain amount of luck. And you mentioned also, often enough and usually in fact, the most successful people are not only talented and they're not only hardworking, but they are also lucky.
[00:17:30] Robert H. Frank: Yeah. I think we've seen the role of luck actually get bigger in recent decades. And that's been in part because new technologies that let the people who are best at what they do serve larger and larger shares of the total market. So if you were the best tax accountant, at one point in history, you had a claim to the most valuable clients in your town. There were two waves of technology that disrupted that industry. The first one was H&R block and other services that demonstrated that you could take high school graduates essentially, and have them do 90 percent of the work and filling out people's tax returns. You'd have a few accountants in the back rooms to answer the hard questions. So money that flowed to local accountants began flowing to the organizers of these franchisees. The next wave came when people wrote software programs that would guide you through the preparation of your own taxes. And there were hundreds of those and there was a real dog fight in the market. And finally critics anointed TurboTax is the most comprehensive user-friendly version of those. And now TurboTax gets the lion's share of all the remuneration that comes in for tax accountants all over the country and increasingly all over the world.
[00:18:51] So if you're the best at what you do, now you get a worldwide reward. What people are willing to pay for it to have the best worldwide, rather than from being the best in your own narrow niche in a local market? And what that sets up is a huge tournament. Everybody is trying to be the winner. There are thousands often, tens of thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands of contestants in these winner-take-all contests. There are natural limits on how hard you can work and how smart you can be. So there are lots and lots of people bumping up against those natural limits. Let's find the contestant out of the many thousands of them who is the smartest, hardest working in the whole set. How lucky will he be? Well since we've chosen him without regard to luck only because he was the hardest working, most talented, his luck will be neither good, nor bad. It'll be average on the luck scale.
[00:19:46] There are going to be hundreds of people who are almost as talented, almost as hard working as he is on average. They'll have average luck too, but there will be a small fraction of them who will have very good luck. That's true of any large set of people. Some are lucky, some are unlucky. And since they'll be so close on the heels of the hardest working, most talented contestant, the fact that they were much luckier than that contestant means that they're going to beat him, even if luck counts for only one or two percent of total performance. And so it's more and more the case, and we can show this mathematically, it's more and more the case that the most talented contestant will not be the winner of contests like these. And it will almost always be somebody who is almost as talented and hardworking, but was a lot luckier.
[00:20:34] So yeah, luck's role has gotten bigger for really two reasons for the reason I just described. And because if you win the amount you get is so much more. Then what you would get if you don't win. So the stakes are higher and the role of luck is also higher.
[00:20:53] Jordan Harbinger: You're listening to The Jordan Harbinger Show with our guest Robert H. Frank. We'll be right back.
[00:20:57] This episode is sponsored in part by Grammarly. I fell in love with this tool. I think it's so cool. This is a product that can help you write better. Grammarly Premium gives you real time suggestions on your writing. It'll help you use smarter words. It works kind of like spell check, but it helps you with clarity suggestions. It helps you with vocabulary suggestions. So you don't have to search for synonyms. It'll help you replace those overused words and phrases that make your writing sound pretty pedestrian. There's a Grammarly word for you. Other things I think are handy, it'll give you a clarity check. Like I mentioned where it'll say, "Hey, this is a little bit weird. The tone is off." It'll also check for plagiarism. You know, in case you want to plagiarize more or less, you know, it depends, it depends on what you're working on. And I've used this everyday in my email. I use it all the time in my browser as an extension. So I'm just kind of Grammarly out all over my computer. I do recommend it. I think it's really fun to come up with new vocab suggestions, make me sound more smarter. Jen—
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[00:23:10] Jordan Harbinger: Now back to Robert H. Frank on The Jordan Harbinger Show.
[00:23:15] It seems like maybe we ignore it this in part, not only because of hindsight bias, where we look at our own success, 30 years on and say, "Oh, it was inevitable because of my work ethic and how naturally smart I am," or something like that. But we also see examples of this kind of in the wild, and it's so hard to quantify. And I think that might be. One of the reasons that we ignore this. We ignore the fact that we might have great parents or we thank them in our Oscar speech, but we might ignore a country of birth. We ignore our health a lot of the time. We ignore the fact that we had tax advice when we were 20, instead of getting it when we were 50, right? Even guys like Bill Gates, who are by pretty much any measure, brilliant, hardworking, talented folks, he happened to go to a school that had unlimited access to computers. Can you speak to that example? I thought that was a really interesting example that I'd never even heard before.
[00:24:06] Robert H. Frank: Yeah. Bill Gates to his real credit, very quick to acknowledge how lucky he was in the circumstances in which he grew up. He was from a well-to-do family in Seattle. He went to one of the first high schools ever to offer essentially real-time turnaround on computer programs submitted. I'm 10 years older than he is. I remember learning to program in college. We had to type out our programs on punch cards. We had to walk up a steep hill to turn them into the computer center. The very next day, 24 hours later, the program would come back as a printout, identifying syntax errors of various sorts. It didn't even run. You'd try to fix those. You'd resubmit. You'd come back up the steep hill the next day. Two or three days later, you'd have gotten it to run but before you ever made any real progress a week would go by.
[00:25:01] Gates could turn in his program and then seconds later, get the results and fine tune it and adjust it and experiment. There were hardly any kids who had access to that before he did. And he's quick to acknowledge how important that was in his development. He doesn't write about this, that I know of, but others have written about the fact that IBM made a critical error in allowing him to keep the rights to the DAS program that he had purchased for IBM when IBM was launching its first personal computer. If IBM had kept the rights to that program, none of us would have ever heard of Bill Gates. He's very clear that chance events played an enormous role in his life, but they were small things that occurred early on. And all the hard work and the brilliance, those things stand out. But those little moves that occurred and could easily have turned out very different, don't come so readily to mind when people look at his career.
[00:25:57] Jordan Harbinger: Right. And even things like birth order and the family history that you have can fall into place. One of the examples from the book is that I had to read it twice, because I just thought, is this even true? If you're born in winter, you tend to be bigger and stronger than your classmates. That for you can get on more sports teams, you can get more leadership opportunities as a result of that. And there's a study that follows these kids through high school. Which of course, if they're taking on leadership positions in high school, they lead to better college applications, which also leads to more leadership opportunities later in life, which lead to higher salaries, which lead to...health, and lifespan and all the effect that salaries have on them. All because of the month in which you were born.
[00:26:39] Robert H. Frank: You don't imagine that that would matter much. Malcolm Gladwell wrote about this in hockey players, in his book, Outliers. If you're born in January, February, or March, you're grossly overrepresented in the NHL and many, many more players born in those months than who were born in October, November, and December. It's for exactly the reason you cited. If you were born in the early months of the year, you're one of the oldest players on your youth league team. And that advantage carries through all through high school and into college and the pros. So CEOs who are born in July and August, the school start dates differ in different parts of the country. But if you're born in the summertime, you're probably among the younger kids in your class. The CEO's who were born in July and August are way less numerous than would be expected proportionately because they didn't have the opportunities to emerge because of their relative young age, as they went through school.
[00:27:38] Even in economics, there's an interesting finding of this sort. In economics, it's the tradition to list co-authors on a paper alphabetically. What the study found was that in the top economics department, in terms of national rankings, you were more likely to be promoted if your name started with a letter that fell closer to the front of the alphabet. Why? Because you were more likely to be cited at the beginning of the list of authors and hence more noticeable to people, and hence you'd have a slight leg up in forming a national reputation on the basis of that. So yeah, these things don't seem like they would be. But, you know, the contests that we enter unfold over the course of a lifetime, and it's like the old tale of the butterfly flapping its wings in China. There's a hurricane in the Caribbean that occurs that wouldn't have occurred except for that butterfly.
[00:28:32] Jordan Harbinger: Right. Exactly the same thing I've mentioned with the twins and the SAT scores, one had a cold and the other didn't and...one's a doctor and the other one isn't. What about the network effect? How does that exacerbate the effect of luck?
[00:28:46] Robert H. Frank: The things we do often are more valuable to us if more other people are doing the same things we're doing. So you want to read a book? What book should I read? You could say, "I just want to read the best book and that's all I care about." But another thing you probably care about in addition to reading the best book is to have an opportunity to discuss the book you read with other people. And you can't do that if you read a book that no one else reads. And so if you have two books of equal quality, you're going to get the same benefit from reading one as the other, unless one has a stronger readership. One's on the best seller list and the other one isn't. Then in addition to getting the same enjoyment you would have from reading the other book, you're going to also enjoy more opportunities to discuss that book with friends who will have read it as well. So when that's true, the saying, "Success breeds success," holds with a vengeance.
[00:29:44] Duncan Watts did a great experiment. He had a website called MusicLab. Duncan Watts is a sociologist, researcher who works at Microsoft. MusicLab had 40 indie bands listed on it. Each was one of their songs. You probably have never heard of any of these bands. I hadn't. The songs were free to you. You could download anyone you want on the condition that you give it a rating. And so people downloaded them, they gave them their ratings. And that was the basis for objective quality rankings of the songs, one through 48.
[00:30:16] Then he set up eight separate websites that were just like the first one. Different people went to each of the eight. What they saw was the same 48 indie bands and songs to go one with each. But in addition to that, they saw how many times each song had been downloaded. And the rating had gotten so far from people and they focused on one particular song. The pattern was that some songs most people did like, other songs most people hated. Those were the minority, both of those categories. The majority of songs had mixed ratings. Some people liked them, others didn't. One song with medium rankings, it was ranked 26 out of the 48. In one of the websites, one of the eight, it ranked number one. And another one, it ranked number 40. So it was either a great song according to people who listened to it and evaluated it in one environment and another environment, it stunk.
[00:31:15] So what's going on there? Apparently, if the first person who downloads your song and rates it happened to like it. Remember these are songs that some people like others don't, then that creates a halo effect that makes the song more popular each and every time somebody else gives it a rate. So the songs, we know how good they are objectively, at least from that operational measure he constructed, but how well they do depends in part on pure chance. Did somebody who liked your song happen to listen to it first? Well, good for you. You're going to do well. If somebody who hateed your song, listen to it first, you're going to fall off in the other direction. So there's a lot of room for social dynamics and networks and all of these processes. They're mostly things that we don't notice. We usually say that the good songs win, the bad songs lose, and certainly quality matters, but it's not all that matters.
[00:32:05] Jordan Harbinger: It's so funny how things like this, the butterfly effect, network effects. We see this with VHS versus Betamax, Windows versus Apple and things like that. And it's a little depressing, right? In some ways, because what are our options? If we can't focus on luck because we know we've got to focus only on what we can control. Now, what? We've got to have a mixture of talent and hard work. Is there more to the story? What do we lean on?
[00:32:30] Robert H. Frank: You know, students asked me, "What should I do? I want to succeed."
[00:32:34] Jordan Harbinger: Be lucky.
[00:32:35] Robert H. Frank: What I tell them is to try to think of an activity that you've engaged in that caused you to lose all sense of the passage of time. This is a psychological state that the psychologist call flow.
[00:32:48] Jordan Harbinger: Flow.
[00:32:49] Robert H. Frank: And some people have never experienced that state, but most people have on some occasions than others. And I say, try to find a job that will let you engage in that activity for a substantial portion of your time. It may not be a job that pays well, or maybe it is one that pays well, forget about that. If you get a job like that, you're going to become an expert at whatever you do. Why? Because you love to do it. You're going to be engaged fully in the process of doing. To become an expert is really, really hard, but it's the most important thing to do if you want to have a chance to succeed. If you're not really good at something, probably you won't succeed. That's the way the competition has evolved as you well know.
[00:33:35] So if you find a job that you love, if you find something that really does engage you so fully, that you lose any sense of the passage of time, it's going to be a lot easier for you to become an expert. So those are things you can control, whether you get a break, whether events unfold in your favor or not, maybe you can't control that, but at the very least, you're going to end up working at a task that makes your day go by in a very pleasant way. And that's not such a bad outcome. So yeah, focus on what you can control. I agree. As a society, there's a great deal that we can control. I say that the most important ingredient for success is to be born of the right parents at the right time, in the right place. Being born in Somalia, not good. Being born in the United States at a certain point in our history, the best possible thing that could happen to you.
[00:34:31] What the environment is like we can control, even though I can't control it and you can't, we need to make investments to create opportunities for people to succeed. And I think if we recognize that the environment plays a big role in explaining why people are able to succeed in the first place. Then I think we're more inclined to want to make those investments. Nobody wants their kids and grandkids to grow up in a country that increasingly resembles a backward land that doesn't provide opportunities and good ladders for people to climb into what their full potential holds for them.
[00:35:05] Jordan Harbinger: If you're listening to this show right now on your smartphone that you bought with your credit card here in a Western country, and you're thinking, "Gee, I just can't catch a break." The truth is you've caught many breaks possibly by birthright just to find yourself where you are right now.
[00:35:20] Robert H. Frank: Yeah. And I think the pity is that we haven't really been willing to make the investments that are needed to maintain that advantage for our citizens. You know, when I graduated from college, I went to Georgia Tech. That's a state supported school. There was very heavy support from taxpayer dollars for students who went. I graduated with a very good education and zero debt. No debt at all. If I graduated from college today, coming from the family I came from I'd have $40,000 in debt, maybe more than that. And so I'd be starting my career with the miracle of compound interest working against me, rather than for me.
[00:36:01] It's a huge difference. The smart kids in math. If they come from a low income house, they're less likely to graduate from college in the US now. The dumb kids in math who were born into more wealthy households. That's not a situation that anybody is willing to say publicly is the way things ought to be. We ought to be having people succeed or not based on how hard they work and what talents they bring to the table, not based on whether they happen to be born with money in the family.
[00:36:33] Jordan Harbinger: This is The Jordan Harbinger Show with our guest Robert H. Frank. We'll be right back.
[00:36:37] This episode is sponsored in part by Ten Thousand. Ten Thousand makes the highest quality, best fitting and ultra comfortable training shorts. I wear these all the time. I've been working out a little bit, but getting pretty swole lately, exercising hard, three times a week in my garage. It's like 90 degrees up in this piece. I used to just wear regular sweatpants or shorts for the workout, but that is not suitable for the type of mobility training that I'm doing now. Now, I only wear Ten Thousand session shorts, which are the flyweight shorts. Good for running mobility stuff. Like I said, tons of features like silver ions for odor protection. Basically, they don't stink. They're lightweight. They stretch where they need to, especially since, I'm trying to get, you know, the hammies loosened up. They've got three secure pockets for phone, keys, and card and an optional liner that is very comfortable. Prevents what goes on down there when you're stretching. Let me just say that. They're also iterating their products a lot. They're constantly upgrading. They got their athletes, giving them feedback all the time and proved the product. I'm a big fan. There's like 9,500 five-star reviews as well. Free shipping and returns in a lifetime guarantee.
[00:37:36] Jen Harbinger: Ten Thousand is offering our listeners 15 percent off your purchase. Go to 10 thousand.cc and enter code Jordan to receive 15 percent off your purchase. That's tenthousand.cc and enter code Jordan.
[00:37:47] Jordan Harbinger: This episode is also sponsored by LifeLock. According to a recent study, 330 million people became victims of cybercrime and another 55 million had their identity stolen, which is a staggering number. This can cost victims money, but honestly it takes up your time, takes up your sanity. Cybercrime victims collectively spent almost 2.7 billion hours trying to resolve their issues. That's like the GDP of a country in terms of productivity, just down the drain. Trying to make sure somebody isn't freaking messing with your identity online. It's important to understand how cybercrime and identity theft are affecting our lives. A LifeLock helps detect a wide range of identity threats, like your social security number for sale on the dark web, which I've found a couple of times. And if you do get dinged, you get zapped by those cybercriminals, you get a dedicated restoration specialist from LifeLock if you become a victim. So they can spend 2.7 billion hours fixing it, and you can get back to your life.
[00:38:39] Jen Harbinger: No one can prevent all identity theft or monitor all transactions at all businesses, but you can keep what's yours with LifeLock by Norton. Join now and save up to 25 percent off your first year at lifelock.com/jordan. That's lifelock.com/jordan for 25 percent off.
[00:38:53] Jordan Harbinger: This episode is also sponsored in part by Klaviyo. Ever wondered how the e-commerce brands you admire do it, how they know just the right messages to send to the right people at the right time. It's not experienced. They have the right data and the right tools because they have. Klaviyo's data-driven marketing automation platform is sophisticated enough to power those legendary campaigns from the brands you admire, but they made it simple, easy, and fast enough for anyone to use. Klaviyo also helps brands create personalized multi-channel marketing campaigns using your most powerful asset, your customer data. Klaviyo integrates with leading e-commerce platforms, helping you use your customer data in real time to send more relevant email and SMS automations. Plus building a marketing campaign is drag and drop easy. You get started with your first campaign in under an hour and build from there easily with Klaviyo's best performing templates. No wonder more than 65,000 brands can't get enough.
[00:39:42] Jen Harbinger: To get started with a free trial of Klaviyo visit klaviyo.com/jordan. That's K-L-A-V-I-Y-O.com/jordan.
[00:39:50] Jordan Harbinger: Thank you so much for listening to the show. Thank you for supporting the show. I do it for you. It makes all the difference in the world to me that you're listening and actually care what my guests and I have to say, or at least my guests have to say, I'm here every week. Your support of our advertisers is also what keeps us going. We put all of the links, all of the codes in one place. So you don't have to write anything down or remember anything. Just go to jordanharbinger.com/deals to find all the deals and the discount codes and everything from every sponsor. And if you're thinking about making a purchase, go to jordanharbinger.com/deals and see if you had a discount through us. That always, always helps. Please consider supporting those who support us.
[00:40:25] Don't forget. We have worksheets for many episodes of the show. So if you want some of the drills and exercises talked about during this time, those are also in one easy place. The link to the worksheets is at jordanharbinger.com/podcast. Now for the rest of my conversation with Robert H. Frank.
[00:40:43] Sure. Yeah. And I think the example of Bhutan, that guy that you'd met in Nepal when you were in the Peace Corps, was that your story?
[00:40:52] Robert H. Frank: I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal for two years. I had a cook whose name was Birkhaman Rai. He was a Bhutanese hill tribesman and is probably to this day, the smartest, most industrious guy I've ever come in contact with personally. There was nothing he couldn't do. He learned so quickly and was so proficient, but probably the apex of his lifetime earnings trajectory was the pittance. I was able to pay him out of my Peace Corps stipend. There just weren't opportunities for him to go anywhere.
[00:41:22] Jordan Harbinger: That's insane to see the difference.
[00:41:24] Robert H. Frank: He would have been a wealthy guy here probably, or at least successful to a reasonable degree, but there, there were no options. You know, Napoleon said, "Ability is nothing without opportunity." You need to have a field to plant the seed. You can't just have a seed with no place to grow.
[00:41:41] Jordan Harbinger: So knowing that the most successful people in any field are almost always lucky, not just talented, not just hard work. Is then our end game here, our strategy to get more chances to play, to increase frequency and therefore a probability and therefore our chance to get lucky? I'm trying to turn this into a teachable moment here for the audience so that we can find out, "Okay, we know that it involves this. This is good because it means that I stand a fighting chance if I'm not the most talented, but also it means that even if I am hardworking and talented, I need to rely on luck. How do I increase my luck?"
[00:42:17] Robert H. Frank: Yeah, I think there's literature now on the psychological trait of resilience. When you fail or get a bad hand, are you able to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and get back in the game? That's an important trade. And I think for the reasons you just suggested, if you're trying to draw a white ball out of an urn, that's got only one white ball and lots and lots of black balls. Then the more times you draw the better, your chances will be of drawing that white ball. So sure, if you're persistent, if you keep attacking the goal again, and again, you're much more likely to succeed, but we know that there are people who have that quality who are talented and they try many times, and yet they don't succeed. It's not sufficient, but you're much more likely to succeed if you take that attitude toward your life. But the really key step is to get unusually good at something. In a winner-take-all economy, it's the people who are best at what they do, who are going to get the biggest rewards. You're not going to get to be the best at what you do, unless you find something that you really love doing, because otherwise it's going to be just too difficult to stick with it and put in the necessary effort to do that.
[00:43:30] Jordan Harbinger: Right. And the effort is what leads to sort of the time and grade, and the time and grade is what essentially is us constantly drawing, trying to get the black ball out of the pot, right? Constantly playing the game.
[00:43:42] Robert H. Frank: Exactly. I couldn't put it any better.
[00:43:44] Jordan Harbinger: Perfect. Yeah. One of the concepts that I also thought was quite interesting, that I had never thought about was how the idea of bad luck actually serves us because we don't view negative outcomes as inevitable because of the luck factor. We don't look at our situation, "I'm totally screwed. I can never do this." Well, at least successful people and people with growth mindsets rarely do, because we think, "Well, there's always the chance I'm going to get lucky." And it turns out a lot of those people are right.
[00:44:11] Robert H. Frank: You know, there's a very robust finding by a psychologist. It's that when we succeed, we attribute our success to hard work and ability. When we fail, we attribute our failure to bad luck. Some authors have suggested that that asymmetry may be perversely adaptive. So if you think about it, you've succeeded and you attribute that to your skill and effort. Those are persistent qualities in a person. So if another opportunity comes along, should I take it? Should I venture into this new possibility? If what it takes to succeed are skill and effort, and I have succeeded in the past and I've said it's because I have those qualities, well, I've still got those qualities. So sure, I should accept it as a new challenge. What if you fail? Well, if you say it's because I was unlucky that I failed now, a new opportunity comes along. Should I take it? Well, I was unlucky the last time by its very nature, bad luck won't happen every time. So why shouldn't I take it? I'm not going to be unlucky forever. I'll keep taking it until my luck changes. So yeah, it's not always adaptive to believe things that are strictly. Sometimes believing things that are not quite good descriptions of the way the world really is, may help you overcome certain other psychological tendencies that would be destructive to you. Yeah. It's a complex world that we live in.
[00:45:36] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, this is very, very interesting because we can harness this and make it useful for us, not just highlight the role of luck and success, but also look at it from both the right side up angle. And I put that right side up in air quotes, I guess, here because we're looking at a double ended problem where yes, it is tough to realize — it's a jagged pill to swallow that you might be super hard working, super talented, and somebody might get the jump on you because they were in the right places at the right time. However, we can also maximize our opportunity to be in those places at the right time, by making sure that we are developing skills, we are developing grit, we're developing persistence, we're developing resilience, and then utilize that to play the game so many times that we just constantly seem to be getting lucky. And it kind of goes back to — is that an Edison quote? "The harder I work, the luckier I get."
[00:46:24] Robert H. Frank: Yeah.
[00:46:25] Jordan Harbinger: Maybe it's more like the harder I work, the more frequently I experience the effects of luck, which doesn't quite have as much of a ring to it. So I see why he phrased it the other way.
[00:46:34] Robert H. Frank: Sure, sure. Yeah. There are all sorts of sayings in the popular culture that encourage us to sort of set the view that luck matters to one side and believe, contrary to reality perhaps, that it's really just about hard work and talent.
[00:46:49] Jordan Harbinger: Why is it important to highlight the role of luck and success? Yes, we have the illusion of control where we think we're responsible for more than we are, because, you know, we often don't see things that we can control or had nothing to do with in the first place. But there's some research that shows that when we're reminded of luck's importance, we change our behavior.
[00:47:06] Robert H. Frank: Yeah. It's a very fascinating stream of research. I'll describe one experiment that my research assistant Selena who came up with on her own. It sort of captures the general idea. She asked a group of volunteer subjects to think of a good thing that had happened to them recently. One group, she said, "Name three things you did that caused that good thing to happen." A second group, she asked to name three things that were external to you. Things you didn't do, maybe things in the environment that happened that were instrumental in causing this good thing to happen. And then a control group, she just said, "Name a good thing that happened to you." At the end, she gave them a bonus. They knew they were going to get a bonus for completing the survey. She gave them the opportunity to give some or all or any part of that bonus to one of three charities, their pick. The group that was asked to think of things they personally had done gave about 25 percent less to charity than the group that was asked to think of three external things that had caused the good thing to happen. And the control group landed roughly in the middle between those two.
[00:48:17] That's consistent, that experiment, and its findings are consistent with a very broad literature that induces subjects to experience the emotion of gratitude. That's a common human emotion. When you get somebody to experience that emotion, a whole cascade of things happen, they get happier by the usual measures. They get healthier by various objective measures. They get along better with other people. Other people are more likely to like them or think highly of them and they become more willing to contribute to the common good. All those things happen just from manipulating people into a situation where they're likely to experience the emotion of gratitude.
[00:49:00] It's interesting to read about. The manipulations they use to induce that emotion. Maybe they'll put you in a spot to do a task, the computer crashes, and then somebody comes along and says, "Oh, don't worry that you just spent an hour doing that. And you lost all your data. That happened to me too last week. I know how to fix that." And he pushes a few buttons on the computer, miraculously recovers all the lost data. So we know that subject who was helped in that way, experiences gratitude, and their whole host of manipulations like that. And they just have consistently this interesting panoply of effects, no bad things happen when you experience gratitude, only good things happen.
[00:49:38] And so if other people like you better, well, we all know that humility within reasonable limits is an attractive psychological trait. If other people like you better, aren't you more likely to get ahead? How do you succeed in this economy? It's by being a member of a high functioning team? Well, everybody wants to be on a team like that. Teams like that don't need just anybody to join them. They can be picky. If you claim credit for everything good that's happened to you, you're almost certainly claiming more credit than you're entitled to. Who wants a jerk like that on their team? Lighten up. Be grateful. Savor your good fortune. You'll be better off in every measurable way if you do that.
[00:50:17] Jordan Harbinger: Yes. It seems like gratitude, luck, looking at the role of luck in our lives, and not focusing of course how it can cause us problems, but focusing on our ability to not only create more of it, play the game more, but focusing on everything that we can control in order to maximize our chances of getting lucky. It's almost like saying maximize our luck in terms of getting lucky. It's an interesting set of data and it's an interesting discussion. Thank you so much for coming by and doing this with us.
[00:50:44] Robert H. Frank: It's been a total pleasure for me to do it.
[00:50:48] Jordan Harbinger: I've got some thoughts on this one, but before I get into that, here's a sample of my interview with Amanda Knox, who was coerced into wrongfully confessing, that she was at the scene of her roommates, grisly murder, without being made aware of her or being given access to a lawyer. Here's a quick look inside.
[00:51:05] Amanda Knox: I was 20 years old. I was studying abroad in Italy. The day after Halloween, I came home to find a murder scene. The cops arrived, they broke down my roommate's door and found her body there. And for the next five days, I was at the disposal and mercy of the police officers who unbeknownst to me had targeted me as a person of interest. My thought was to just take direction. I did what I was told. And what I was called was by the police to come in every day for questioning. And I sat for hours and hours and hours and hours. I often worried that maybe the reason that they were upset or short with me was because I just wasn't speaking Italian well enough. I thought that was the reason why they kept asking me questions over and over and over again. No matter how many ways I answered the same question, they never seemed happy with it. I just sort of submitted myself to what was ultimately a very coercive interrogation technique that culminated with an overnight interrogation and broke me. I was. I do believe that the reason they were upset with me was because I didn't remember correctly. I realized that the truth didn't matter and that I couldn't count on the truth to save me. People believed it. I was convicted. I spent four years in prison.
[00:52:53] Jordan Harbinger: Amanda Knox joins us to discuss how she put her life back together and how she lives with the residue of tabloid infamy, even after being acquitted of this terrible crime. For more, including why it's not uncommon for an innocent person to give a false confession to a skilled interrogator, check out episode 386 on The Jordan Harbinger Show.
[00:53:12] You know, this is always so interesting. I do see a ton of successful people who just don't even understand or just flat out refuse to acknowledge the role that luck has in their success. And for me, I'm constantly trying nowadays after doing episodes like this, constantly trying to count my blessings. Where was I lucky? Of course there's gratitude involved, right? I'm so lucky that this happened. I'm so lucky I was born in the United States, for example. I'm so lucky that I got great schooling and that I didn't screw up my life with a crippling, whatever, fill in the blank. I haven't been hit by a bus lately or ever for that matter now. Knock on wood. But the idea here is also that when we count the role of luck in our lives, it helps us get a little bit more compassionate for those that don't have it. Not that it's an excuse for other people or anything like that, but at least we're not measuring people by the same measuring stick that we have when we're counting our luck, or I should say discounting our own luck.
[00:54:04] And there's a lot here that I think breeds compassion. It breeds a realistic viewpoint of what is possible in our own lives, especially given the amount of luck that you have just by virtue of listening to this and understanding English and playing it on your super expensive by most standards in the world, mobile device, using 5G that your country has for you. I mean, there's endless amounts of things to consider lucky in our lives. Even when we've had a massive, massive personal role in making those things happen for ourselves, luck really does in many cases win the day.
[00:54:33] So big thank you to Robert H. Frank. The book will be linked in the show notes and links to all books, always in the show notes. Please use our website links if you buy books. Yes, they work in foreign countries. Yes, they work for audiobooks. That stuff helps support the show when you use our links. Worksheets for the episode or in the show notes. Transcripts are in the show notes. We have a brand new clips channel by the way, where cuts that don't make it to the show or highlights from interviews that you can't see anywhere else. Those end up on our clips channel at jordanharbinger.com/clips. That's where you can find it. I'm also at @JordanHarbinger on both Twitter and Instagram, or hit me on LinkedIn.
[00:55:06] I'm teaching you how to connect with amazing people and manage relationships using the same software, systems, tiny habits that I'm doing in our Six-Minute Networking course. The course is free. No BS, jordanharbinger.com/course, I'm teaching you how to dig the well before you get thirsty. And most of the guests on the show, they subscribed to the course, they contributed to the course. Come join us, you'll be in smart company where you.
[00:55:28] This show is created in association with PodcastOne. My team is Jen Harbinger, Jase Sanderson, Robert Fogarty, Millie Ocampo, Ian Baird, Josh Ballard, and Gabriel Mizrahi. Remember, we rise by lifting others. The fee for this show is that you share it with friends when you find something useful or interesting. If you know somebody who considers themselves incredibly lucky or refuses to connect themselves as lucky as they actually are, please share this episode with them and hopefully you can find something great in every episode. So please share the show with those you care about. In the meantime, do your best to apply what you hear on the show, so you can live what you listen, and we'll see you next time.
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