Life is Serendipity

Behavioral economist Meir Statman recounts his serendipitous route to the Mission Campus—and the surprises that working and living can yield.

Life is Serendipity
First grade graduation: Meir Statman, age 6, honored with an award. Photo courtesy Meir Statman.

Meir Statman, the Glenn Klimek Professor of Finance and University Professor for 2009–10, recently addressed his Santa Clara University faculty colleagues during their annual Faculty Recognition Dinner in September 2010. His address is reprinted below.

I will speak this evening about serendipity, because how else can I explain what I, a nice Jewish boy, am doing at this wonderful Catholic Jesuit University.

Serendipity is in my heritage. My parents were teenagers in Poland in 1939, when the Nazis invaded. Fortunately, they escaped with their parents into the Soviet Union, wandered in Siberia and then down to Uzbekistan, where they met, fell in love, and got married. I was born in 1947 in a refugee camp in Germany and together we came to Israel in 1949.

Meeting Navah at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, falling in love, and getting married was quite ordinary by comparison, nothing more than the usual boy-meets-girl-at-a-university. But we recently celebrated our 41st anniversary. This takes a bit of serendipity.

Some years ago an undergraduate student kept coming to my office to ask what career he should choose. Should he be a financial analyst? Or perhaps an investment banker? Or perhaps a venture capitalist?

Finally I said, “Now listen, next time you come to see me I want you to have a job, any job!”

I wish I could say that this story has a happy ending, but it does not. I have never seen that student again. But I’m sure that by now he has a job and a career, and I hope that he has a vocation as well, one he pursues with passion, and one where he does good for others as well as for himself. Because he must have learned by now what all of us beyond college age have learned: that life is serendipity.

And so when I send my undergraduate students into internships I say: “Open yourselves to serendipity, because serendipity comes only to those who open themselves to it.”

“Be surprised,” I say, “and reflect on your surprises. You will learn much about the world in your internships, and you will learn even more about yourselves.”

I ask my internship students to write reflection essays centered on our 3Cs: competence, conscience, and compassion. “Competence is about skills and knowledge. Which skills and knowledge did you expect to use and which did you use? Conscience is about ethics, morals, and fairness. Observe your behavior and the behavior of others. What do you see? Compassion is about the relations between those with much power and those with little power. Power comes from wealth, position, or knowledge. Your knowledge gives you power. How do you use it?”

We often see images of the very poor when we think about compassion, perhaps the poor in Africa. But this is not how we learn compassion. We learn compassion at home, when we are little and weak and our parents are big and strong, then we learn compassion as we show it to our little brothers and sisters, and then we learn compassion at school as we side with the weak against the bullies. In time, our horizons expand to encompass the entire world.

I have learned compassion from my mother. I remember, first vaguely and then clearly, a man who would stop by our home on Fridays. My mom would have for him a care package of challah, the Sabbath bread, and other provisions for the Sabbath.

When I graduated from the Hebrew University I got a job, any job, as a financial analyst at a company. The job was interesting for a few months and then it was not. As I would say later, projects lasted much longer than my interest in them.

One morning I got up, called work to say that I would not be in, and Navah and I went to Jerusalem, where I remembered a library that had a volume containing information about Ph.D. programs in the United States. The library also had a volume about scholarships available to foreign students. One foundation wrote back to say that they could not tell from my name whether I’m a man or a woman, but I should know that this is a foundation of a sorority and it grants scholarships only to women. In time, Navah applied and received a scholarship that paid most of her tuition at Columbia.

I already had a job when I got my Ph.D. at Columbia, teaching at Rutgers College. I was happy there as the proverbial worm in horseradish, thinking that it was sweet because I had never tasted an apple. Still, I went to the chair of my department to find if a raise accompanies the completion of a Ph.D. “Here is how it goes, sonny,” he said, “You go to another university, you get an offer, and then we see if we can match it.”


I went to Binghamton University in upstate New York in late February 1979. The weather was freezing and I almost slipped on the ice. And then I came to Santa Clara, where the sun was shining and people were kind. I remember sitting at the faculty club at the end of a long day of interviews and thinking “this place feels like home.” I got an offer from Santa Clara, and Paul Locatelli, S.J., ’60made it sweeter by offering Navah a scholarship for our MBA program, paid for by the Jesuit community.

When I came to Santa Clara at the end of 1979 I found that the only member of my department of finance who was engaged in research had left. I like to do research by myself and I like to do it with others, so I knocked on the doors of the offices of faculty members, introduced myself, and asked if they have a few moments to tell me about their work so we might explore collaborative work. This is how I got to write papers with Tyzoon Tyebjee and Shelby McIntyre of the marketing department, Dave Caldwell of the management department, and Jim Sepe of the accounting department.

But my most important collaboration by far was with Hersh Shefrin who was at the time in the economics department. Hersh and I wrote many papers together. We even wrote a book, about ethics on Wall Street. It was a very short book.

The first paper Hersh and I wrote was about the problem of self-control that we face when we must save but are tempted to spend. This can be easily illustrated with the self-control problem I have when facing chocolate. I like chocolate, but it tends to settle in my waistline. I can exercise sufficient self-control in the supermarket because it is not acceptable to rip the wrapper off a chocolate bar and eat it then and there. But if a chocolate bar gets to my home it soon gets to my waistline.

I told the chocolate story to my students, illustrating the conflict between saving and spending. During the break some went to the campus store, got a chocolate bar, and placed it on my desk to see what I would do. You see, our students are not only good at the 3Cs, they are also good at a fourth: Critical Thinking. They know that a theory is worth nothing unless it fits the evidence.

In time, I persuaded Hersh to switch to the finance department and together we recruited terrific teaching scholars, including Hoje JoAtulya SarinBob HendershottSanjiv DasGeorge ChackoCarrie PanSteve WadeSharath Suri, and, most recently, Ye Cai.

Two quick serendipity stories: In 1999 I was presenting a paper at a conference. Sanjiv Das was there to present a paper written with Priya Raghubir, his wife. Sanjiv was a professor at the Harvard Business School at the time. Priya is a professor of marketing at NYU. We sat together for lunch and somehow the conversation drifted toward Santa Clara. Sanjiv joined our department soon after and by now has taken over from me the role of department chair which he does better than I ever did. And I get to write papers not only with Sanjiv but also with Priya.

Carrie Pan was my student in the MBA program. One day she came to ask if she might help me with my research. I was delighted to accept her offer. In time, she was accepted into the Ph.D. program at Ohio State University, and we got to recruit her when she got her Ph.D. Now I get to write papers with Carrie as well.

One last story: Years ago I was getting ready for a conference in Lisbon. As is my habit, I opened the Encyclopedia Judaica to learn more about the Jewish history of Lisbon. The encyclopedia said that the last person burned at the stake by the Inquisition in Lisbon was a Jesuit. A Jesuit! This was odd, so I went to ask Father Jim Reites. And Fr. Reites laughed and said, “Of course, the Inquisition hated the Jesuits as much as it hated the Jews.” More recently Fr. Reites told me that Ignatius was hauled before the Inquisition more than once to be interrogated about what he does on Saturdays, because they suspected that he was a Converso, a Jew who pretends to have converted into Catholicism but continues to practice Judaism.

This got me thinking:

  • Navah won Santa Clara’s Ignatian award for her good work with the mentally ill and their families.
  • My Jewish mother taught me the Jesuit 3Cs.
  • Jews and Jesuits both begin with the letter J.

You might say that this is nothing but serendipity, but I see more. I see a plan, a plot, maybe even a code. I think that there is a book in it, maybe even a movie that will make more money than the “DaVinci Code.”

But even if there is no book, and no movie, I surely hope to be with all of you for another 30 years at our wonderful Catholic Jesuit University.