Dumb Luck

Well I’m a huge believer in dumb luck. I think dumb luck beats smart planning much more often than we would like to admit. People have incorrectly praised my quite varied career, including government service and public service. And if I could explain how I got into going into Washington and President Nixon’s White House, and later to his cabinet, I was working at 39th South Purcell in Chicago. I used to walk to the railroad stations. It’s a lot cheaper. And one day I noticed that 19th South Purcell, there was a University of Chicago graduate school. Well I’d been playing to Northwestern where I’d done my undergraduate work, but it was all the way across Chicago. And since it was night school, it would have taken me 20-30 minutes to get over there and 20-30 minutes to get back. So I said, you know, “Maybe I ought to go to the University of Chicago. It’s supposed to be a pretty good place.” So that’s where I went, to the University of Chicago. It had nothing to do with career planning or anything of the sort. It was there that I made some of the best friends that I have on the faculty – Milton Freedman, George Steigler, George Schultz. And George later, you’ll recall, became a very senior figure in the Nixon administration. He became Secretary of Labor, Office of Management and Budget, Secretary of Treasury; and then later in the Reagan administration Secretary of State. And George and I had worked very closely together at the University of Chicago, and I had taught there for about four or five years part-time at night. So one day he called me and said, “President Nixon wants to see you tomorrow.” So I go to Washington, I end up in the Oval Office, and the president pointed out to me that he thought economics was gonna become terribly important at the vortex of foreign policy. He and Henry Kissinger, my good friend, had a very complicated relationship. For some reason he felt he needed to tell me that Henry didn’t know a damn thing about economics. And what was worse, he didn’t know what he didn’t know. So he went and set up a new council counterpart of the National Security Council, and I was to head it. Well this wasn’t anything I had planned or anything. And I look back on that. I’ve been immensely grateful for my public service opportunity. Some of the most exciting experiences of broadening I ever had. It has led to my being involved with some great non-profit organizations. I just stepped down after 22 years as Chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations. I’m the Founding Chairman of the so-called Peterson Institute for International Economics. I’m one of the founders of the Concord Coalition. And I doubt very much I would have done those things if I hadn’t gone to Washington. And I doubt I’d gone to Washington if I hadn’t had . . . if I didn’t happen to have an office at 39th South Purcell in South Chicago, and didn’t happen to have a downtown school at 19th and South Purcell. So never, never underestimate the role of luck in life. And I think the trick . . . I’ve forgotten who the councilman was in New York who once said, “I’ve seen my opportunities and I took ‘em.” I think it’s important when you do have something that luck thrusts upon you to somehow be made in such a way psychologically that, as Paul Tilley said once, “If you’re comfortable with ambiguity, that’s what you need when you’re in a rapidly changing world.” So I say dumb luck and taking advantage of your opportunities will often lead to more interesting places than long term, smart career planning.

Recorded On: 7/26/07

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