Frank: Luck looms larger in success than most of us think

Robert Frank

When economist Robert H. Frank gives presentations about his latest book, he tells audiences he is almost certainly the luckiest person in the room.

If someone thinks they are luckier, he invites them to speak with him later about it. “You can see the wheels turning. Their eyes light up, they tell you about it, and then they think of another example,” he said.

The most vivid example of his own good fortune unfolded during a tennis game in 2007. Frank was playing with his friend and collaborator Tom Gilovich, professor of psychology, when Frank suffered sudden cardiac arrest – an experience nearly 90 percent of victims don’t survive. Luckily, an ambulance happened to be nearby, and he recovered.

Frank’s book, “Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy” (2016), outlines his view that successful people are almost always talented and hardworking, but very few would have succeeded if they hadn’t been lucky, too. The book calls on policymakers and citizens to create the conditions, from high-quality infrastructure to a robust social safety net, that put luck on everyone’s side.

“If we can just get people thinking in a way that enables them to recognize that they’ve been fortunate, that will ensure a better outcome for everyone,” Frank said.

Luck doesn’t necessarily always come in a dramatic form. Perhaps a worker gets a promotion because a more qualified candidate couldn’t take the job. Maybe a teacher steers a high school student out of trouble. “Those things often seem minor. They’re fleeting,” Frank said. “But without them, your story would be completely different. A slight change in a trajectory early on magnified step by step takes you to a completely different spot.”

Vast research in the field of positive psychology shows that people who recall their good fortune feel grateful, which makes them more generous, public-spirited and willing to pay their good luck forward, he said.

In contrast, seeing ourselves as entirely self-made makes us much less generous and public-spirited and less likely to support the social investments that made our own success possible, Frank has written.

The simple fact of having been born in a highly developed country that allows for success is an enormous stroke of luck, Frank says. “South Sudan doesn’t give you much in the way of opportunities to succeed,” he points out.

But Americans have been unwilling in recent years to support the public investments that would enhance the next generation’s odds of success. That’s due to budget deficits resulting from a long-term decline in the United States’ tax rate for the rich.

“The people who are most successful now are successful on a scale that we’ve never seen before. And they’re more determined than ever that they’re entitled to keep every nickel that comes their way,” Frank said. “They lobby for tax cuts for themselves and less stringent regulations for their businesses. As a result, if you’re born in the bottom half now, you have much less of a chance to find your way to a successful outcome than in the past. That’s not right.”

And it’s a bad deal for everyone, the rich included. For example, if a wealthy person has to drive her Ferrari on roads riddled with potholes, that’s a bad trade, Frank said. “If you bought a Porsche that cost half as much as the Ferrari and spent that money on paving the roads a little better, you’d have a better experience,” he said.

U.S. infrastructure, from dams to bridges to schools, is in dire need of an upgrade, he pointed out. The American Society of Civil Engineers’ report card grade on American infrastructure is currently a D+. And the society estimates the United States will have to invest $3.6 trillion to bring it up to minimum standards by 2020. “There are dams that are in danger of collapse. Schools have leaky roofs and bathrooms with black mold growing in them. It’s ugly,” Frank said.

In contrast, most developed countries enjoy well-maintained train stations and roads and social services that include child care, college tuition, health care and retirement support. Voluminous data show that the wealthy in these countries are happier despite paying more tax than people in the U.S., Frank said.

Evidence from the social sciences demonstrates that beyond a certain income threshold, people’s sense of well-being depends much more on their relative purchasing power than on how much they spend in absolute terms, Frank has written. If the top tax rates were a little higher, the mansions of the most affluent people would be a little smaller, their diamonds a little more modest. But their peers’ mansions and diamonds would be more modest too, leaving everyone equally satisfied, Frank said.

Since “Success and Luck” came out in May, readers have been sending him their own “good luck” stories. One young man working in a railroad yard forgot his baseball hat at home one day. When it began to rain, a friend lent him a hardhat to wear. Later that shift, a 200-pound iron plate fell from an auto carrier onto his head. The metal plate sheared most of the way through the hardhat. “Without a doubt had I not forgotten my baseball hat that metal plate would have bisected my skull,” the man wrote.

Frank is collecting some of these stories to be published.

“You want to do what you can to make things better. … So that’s been my focus,” Frank said. “I’m trying to get people talking about this.”

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Melissa Osgood