Robert Frank on success and luck

It is often said, tongue in cheek, that the two most important decisions a child can make is to choose good parents and a good place of birth. Parents and birthplace, for the bably, are of course a matter of chance, since choice is not possible. But the fact remains that these are incredibly important determinants of success in life.

Cornell University economist Robert Frank (born 1945) has written a book on this very topic, which was published just days ago by Princeton University Press. The book’s title is Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy. An essay adapted from his book has been printed in the May 2016 issue of The Atlantic magazine. Here are some excerpts.

[C]hance plays a far larger role in life outcomes than most people realize. And yet, the luckiest among us appear especially unlikely to appreciate our good fortune. …. Wealthy people overwhelmingly attribute their own success to hard work rather than to factors like luck or being in the right place at the right time.

That’s troubling, because a growing body of evidence suggests that seeing ourselves as self-made—rather than as talented, hardworking, and lucky—leads us to be less generous and public-spirited. It may even make the lucky less likely to support the conditions (such as high-quality public infrastructure and education) that made their own success possible.

Happily, though, when people are prompted to reflect on their good fortune, they become much more willing to contribute to the common good. ….

Economists like to talk about scarcity, but its logic doesn’t always hold up in the realm of human emotion. Gratitude, in particular, is a currency we can spend freely without fear of bankruptcy. …. And because these conversations almost always leave participants feeling happier, it’s not hard to imagine them becoming contagious.

Robert H. Frank, “Why Luck Matters More Than You Might Think“, The Atlantic, May 2016.

Professor Frank discussed his book with economist Russ Roberts (born 1954) in an EconTalk podcast. Here is an excerpt from the podcast highlights:

Russ: But the insight that I really like that you haven’t mentioned yet is this idea that, as you mentioned before–that certainly people who are successful look at their own hard work; they look at their own efforts. And they forget about the fact–the part you haven’t mentioned–is that they forget about the fact that there are a lot of other people who worked hard, and smart, and who are skilled–and they don’t succeed.

Guest: Exactly. Yeah. That’s the clear fact on the table: If you’d only look carefully at it, you’d see it without any difficulty. Being smart and hard-working–you don’t want to say that they are sufficient for success, by any means. There are so many smart, hard-working people who don’t succeed. They are not even necessary for success–although most successful people have those qualities. But you can look at lip-synching boy bands, some of these derivatives traders–there are a lot of people who got spectacularly successful without being really particularly talented or hardworking. But that’s the exception.

Russ Roberts, “Robert Frank on Success and Luck“, EconTalk podcast, 11 April 2016.

Click on the link for more highlights, and to download and listen to the hour-long podcast.

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