Review of “Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy” by Robert Frank

The latest book by a prominent economist, this book examines the role of luck in success, arguing that much more of success is due to luck than usually believed — and that this fact has important policy implications. Despite the author, it is not an academic book; it makes it case through anecdotes and lay explanations.

As much as I agree with the central premise, I think the author both overstates (in a minor way) and understates (in a major way) the case that success is predominantly due to luck.

First, how he overstates it: much of the case is built by giving examples of lucky breaks caught by particular people, including the author himself; these range from Bill Gates being one of a handful of kids of his generation in a position to learn how to program as a kid, to the author (randomly and luckily, he claims) having a string of paper acceptances right before his tenure case. I think this approach is a weak one as it is particularly vulnerable to the “luck favors the prepared mind” counter-argument: that what we perceive as the successful’s lucky breaks are really just the types of opportunities available to everyone, but that the successful were ones prepared/capable enough to take advantage; i.e. even if the specific “lucky breaks” such people received didn’t materialize, they would have found other opportunities.

But this overstatement/rhetorical misstep pales in comparison to (what I believe is) the author’s hesitance to take his argument to its logical conclusion: that, under one definition of “luck,” all of success is due to luck. This argument, as articulated by Galen Strawson here, is roughly as follows: to be responsible for one’s actions, one needs to be responsible for one’s personality/characteristics/skills/nature/self. But one’s nature is a product of ones prior actions, surroundings, and past nature. But those past actions/nature were themselves products of earlier actions/nature. This regress stops at a point — during one’s toddler/baby years — at which everyone agrees one cannot be held responsible for ones actions or personality/nature. Robert Sapolsky in his book Behave gives an alternate version of the argument, stating that — much as we separate out crimes committed by the ‘mentally ill’ — our behavior is so inextricably intertwined with our biology that such blame becomes ill-defined. Even “hard work,” then, is a product of one’s genes or upbringing that makes one more likely to work hard. Robert Frank in this book hints at this argument — stating that culture and society play an important role in success — but doesn’t go far enough.

This book isn’t just an argument that luck plays a role in success, however; Frank considers various implications of the idea.

One that I found particularly insightful — as I’ve faced the same conundrum when giving advice to others or evaluating others’ advice — is that even if luck is essential, as individuals we might be better off not believing in it; self-determination or certainty of one’s success might be important to pursue big projects or ideas that might rely on some luck to be successful. In other words, in order to pursue great things, maybe one needs to believe in one’s inevitable success, no matter how untrue it is. This idea, to some extent, also has policy implications. It can both be true that luck plays a large role in success, and that the lucky/successful should be paid more/be better off. Promises of such rewards can encourage people to work harder in a way that makes everyone better off.

A connection (and more recent implication) that I hadn’t considered before this book is that in our “winner takes all” world, the role of luck is even greater: the skill differential between the best person and second-best person in a field may be small, and luck may determine who wins out. While the winner reaps all the rewards, second place is left with nothing. Frank discusses this particular idea in another book, The Winner-Take-All Society.

The author ends the book connecting the ideas in this book to another one of his ideas, “expenditure cascades,” in which each wealth level of society takes clues from the level above it in determining how much to spend on things. He then advocates a highly progressive consumption tax. I personally thought the connection between the ideas to be somewhat tenuous. While I see how the large role of luck implies a (much more) progressive tax system, I don’t see the connection to the type of taxation or expenditure cascades.