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Assistant Professor Nico Cornell’s Blue Jeans Lecture Focuses on Luck and Running

By Renee Griffin, 2L
November 22, 2019

Michigan Law Assistant Professor Nicolas Cornell, recipient of the 2019 L. Hart Wright Award for Teaching Excellence, characteristically began his recent Blue Jeans Lecture with a law-themed joke.

"So, what do I have to talk about?" Cornell asked. "Well, of course, that was my question: 'What do I have to talk about?' The person from the Law School Student Senate told me, 'There's no standard here,' to which thought, 'oh, good, so then there must be rule!'"

Professor Nicolas CornellCornell, who teaches 1L Contracts as well as upper-level courses, took the instruction to approach the talk however he liked and ran with it, so to speak. For the rest of the lecture, Cornell told stories about his experiences running ultramarathons and reflected on the value of such activities in the face of life's luck.

His first "real" ultramarathon—"any distance longer than a marathon"—was a race in Northern Pennsylvania called the "World's End Ultramarathon," covering about 65 miles. That race did not go according to plan; the terrain was steeper than Cornell anticipated, and he came close to giving up.

But Cornell kept going, and finished just six-and-a-half minutes before the 19-hour cutoff time.

"There is something truly amazing about reaching a point where one thinks one cannot go any further and then discovering that one can go so, so much further," Cornell said. "We are capable of so much more than we think. That night is the most vivid experience of this fact that I have ever had."

For Cornell's second running story, he spoke about running deep in the Michigan woods when he came across a nonresponsive man in his path. It took 45 minutes after he called 911 for emergency services to arrive.

"Rocks and rattlesnakes; running through the woods in the dark as it rains; thousands of feet of climbing that make the legs scream; the chance of happening upon a dead body (a dead body!)…" Cornell said. "One might ask at this point: Why do I like doing this stuff? What rational person would choose to devote most of his recreational time to this sort of thing?"

Cornell confessed that he did not have a simple or certain answer to that question. But he did have a theory.

"In running, the pervasive luck is indisputable," he said. "Some people's bodies are naturally better at it than others. Sometimes a person gets hurt. Some days it rains, some days are scorching hot, and some days are perfect. There's luck, and we all know it.

"But, beyond that, there are logical rewards to effort. If I work hard in training, I do better. If I slack off in training, I do worse. It’s as simple as that. Running is brutally honest."

In this way, running is starkly different from the rest of life, Cornell noted. "Sometimes you give every ounce of effort and get nothing. Other times, you wing it—knowing you can do better—and yet you find yourself lauded," Cornell said. "It is unhealthy self-deception to think that if you just work harder or smarter or better, then you can solve every problem. It's so tempting to think that way but life doesn't work like that."

Sharing elements of his own personal life, Cornell warned that in denying the pervasive role of luck, "the failures that you do encounter will be devastating" and can "make us unapologetic and unforgiving."

He closed with a recommendation that students find what he has found in running: "something hard—something at which you will sometimes and perhaps often fail—that is nonetheless truly responsive to your efforts. Not because such activities will mirror life, where you need a good work ethic, but precisely because they do not mirror life, because they provide a sanctuary from life."

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