July 15, 2016

Lucky horseshoe. Credit: Aapo Haapanen / Flickr Creative Commons

What do Mona Lisa and Kim Kardashian have in common? Brown hair, a recognizable face, and according to Robert Frank, an economics professor at Cornell, one more crucial characteristic: both are famous for being famous.

Frank says that until 1911 “nobody cared much about the Mona Lisa.” Then, it was stolen.

International journalism - and the ability to faithfully reproduce an image millions of times - allowed the story to spread across nations, and suddenly, the Mona Lisa became one of the most famous paintings in the world. Had it not been stolen, Frank believes it wouldn’t be nearly as famous as it is now.

Frank argues that luck plays a bigger role in our lives than we would like to admit. He says successful people are “almost certainly” very talented and probably worked very hard. But, when successful people look back on their careers, they often forget that factors beyond their hard work and smarts led to their prosperity.

What they don’t think about, Frank says, are the outside factors that allowed them to get to the top: a teacher in high school steering them in a certain direction, or the coworker who had to turn down a promotion to tend to a sick parent. And these are the sorts of things that can make or break someone’s trajectory.

Mona Lisa, it turns out, owes her fame to a lot more than just that bewitching smile.

innovation hub, Robert Frank, pri, Kara Miller, WGBH

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