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Ingenious: Robert H. Frank

Why you should admit you didn’t create your success on your own.

Economist Robert H. Frank chose a prescient epigraph for his latest book, Success and Luck. It’s from a dandy 1940s essay by E.B.…By Kevin Berger

Economist Robert H. Frank chose a prescient epigraph for his latest book, Success and Luck. It’s from a dandy 1940s essay by E.B. White that opens a social club door on the American ego. “Luck is not something you can mention in the presence of self-made men.” It was prescient because Frank’s book, an incisive look at how luck steers human achievement, brought out the dudgeon in the Horatio Algers among us. How dare Frank, a professor of economics at Cornell University, and former columnist for The New York Times, say meritocracy is a myth and the road to success is dotted by chance. In the wake of a Nautilus interview with Frank last week, one Internet commenter wrote that Frank was pushing a neo-Marxist “war on self-determination.”

In this video interview, Frank responds to his critics and expands his insights into the invisible hand of luck in our lives and economy. “To imagine that everybody does best by being purely selfish is a socially moronic posture to bring to the study of human behavior,” Frank says. “We don’t do better if everyone is selfish in all circumstances.” The American Dream needs a rewrite, he says, and with it comes wider personal and social perspectives, ones that might guarantee a more equitable and just land. “If we acknowledge luck, the experimental evidence is really quite clear that we become much more inclined to pay forward for the common good, to contribute things that will benefit not just us but the community at large.”

To see the video interview, click the “play” button at the top of this article.

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Interview Transcript

Are you waging a war on self-determination?

No, I think that’s the most common misreading of the theme of the book. If you tell people that luck plays a role, what many people seem to hear is that only luck matters. What I take great pains to make clear in the book is that the people who win in the big arenas—the ones [where they] are doling out the biggest prizes that there are out there—are almost all of them really talented, really hardworking, but they’re many contestants in those arenas that lose; in fact, most of them lose. So talent and hard work are not sufficient to put you in the winner’s circle.

If you dwell on the fact that chance plays a big role, you may be more tempted to sit back and hope for a break.

In fact, since there are natural limits on hard work and talent, the fact that there are many contestants in these arenas almost guarantees that there will be a lot of them bunched up against those upper limits, and if you focus only on the one who is hardest working and most talented, that person’s going to have, on average, just mediocre luck. He won’t be lucky; he won’t be unlucky. There will be somebody who is breathing down his neck—in fact, a large set of people breathing down his neck on the talent and efforts scales, and among them there will be at least a few who are exceptionally lucky. That’s all it takes, even if luck doesn’t count for much in the contest.

So, no, it’s not saying that hard work and talent don’t matter; they’re essential in most cases. We can think of isolated examples where people succeed without those qualities, but they’re very rare. So, no, it’s not a war against self-determination in any sense.

Who’s a good example of a lucky businessperson?

You know, I’ll cite Bill Gates as an example. He’s a good example because he’s among the first to acknowledge that good luck played a huge role in his success, and there are lots of different dimensions of it. One was his training in high school.

He attended one of the few high schools that had real-time, instant feedback on the computer programs that you submitted. When I was learning the program, we had to type up a card deck, we had to carry it up a steep hill, submit it to the computer center; two days later you’d get the results back. You’d discover that you had made some syntax errors and then two days later, you might finally get your program to run.

He was one of the first people born when he was, and situated where he was in an affluent high school in Seattle, to be able to get instant feedback. He spent endless hours doing that and without that experience, he’s quick to acknowledge that he never would have been able to do the things he did.

There were many, many other episodes in his career, not least among them some careless negotiation by IBM that resulted in him getting the rights to sell copies of DOS on every computer that IBM sold. So there are many, many examples that he quickly acknowledges except for any of which we would never have heard of him today.

Why do we downplay the role of luck?

I think you could be cynical in trying to answer that question. It could be that people feel like if they acknowledge that they were lucky that the government will try to take more of their money and they can defend their position more successfully if they deny that luck had any influence on their success.

I don’t think it’s necessary to go there. I prefer just to look at how people naturally construct their life histories. We assemble narratives about ourselves routinely and the elements that go into those are the things that we can retrieve most comfortably from memory. If you take, as a given, that the people who succeed on any grand scale are almost all of them hardworking, talented, that means that when they look back on a successful career 30 years in, they’ll remember all those times they got up early and worked late. They’ll remember all those difficult problems that they had to solve. They’ll remember all those very formidable opponents that they had to vanquish along the way.

Those are totally accurate memories and they’ll recruit those. Those fit the narrative, the classical narrative of why people succeed, and so there’s nothing misleading about building your narrative out of elements like that. But what they’re much less likely to remember is that there was a teacher in the 10th grade that steered them out of trouble or maybe they got a promotion early on because a colleague who was just slightly more qualified couldn’t accept it because he had to care for an ailing parent. Those kinds of things don’t stand out nearly as vividly in memory so they don’t play as big a role in life histories that we construct.

The other fundamental reason is that there’s a huge asymmetry between how people think about headwinds and tailwinds, and here I’ll mention the work of my friend and colleague Tom Gilovich, the psychologist at Cornell. When you’re riding a bike into a headwind you’re keenly aware of that. Every 100 yards you travel, you wish that wind would go away. You’re battling against it, it’s at the front of your mind. Then the course changes direction; you’ve got the wind at your back. What a great feeling that is for about 20 seconds, and then it’s completely out of your mind. You’re not even aware that the wind is at your back. You’re not having to battle any enemies in that sense and so it’s out of your mind.

So when you think back to your career what do you remember? You remember the headwinds you faced. You don’t remember all the tailwinds that were pushing you along. So there’s just these natural asymmetries that lead people to either ignore the role of luck entirely or overstate it to a considerable degree.

Individualism is rooted in America. Is that why we take issue with luck?

I think that’s part of it. Surely, it may also be, in a perverse way, adaptive to downplay the role of luck. If you think of yourself as the captain of your own fate, you’re probably going to be more effective at dealing with challenges that you confront in life. If you dwell a great deal on the fact that chance plays a big role, you may be more tempted to sit back and hope for a break instead of working hard and becoming an expert at something, which is the step you need to take if you want to have a real chance at succeeding.

So, yeah, I think there are reasons, maybe not to dwell too much—especially when you’re starting out in life—on the fact that chance events are important. But at the same time, once you’ve succeeded it’s really very much in your interest to acknowledge that you succeeded, not just by dint of your own efforts, but also because you had some support and lucky breaks along the way.

The fact that you exist at all is an extraordinary stroke of luck.

We now know that if you accept that realization about your position, you’re happier, other people like you better, which may make it even more likely to succeed in the future. Your health is better and, most important, you’re more generous toward other people, you’re more willing to pay forward for the common good. You succeeded because others invested in creating opportunities for you. Who’s going to invest for the next group that comes along?

If you think you did it all on your own, you develop a sense of entitlement that makes you determined to hang on to every nickel, and I think the stingy way we’ve been funding the public infrastructure in the last decades is really destined to make it harder for people to succeed in the next round.

Why does acknowledging luck benefit us?

The human psychology is stranger than most economists credit. We like to think in terms of scarcity. If you get more of one thing, you have to give up other things in other domains. But in human psychology, it doesn’t always seem to work that way. If you experience gratitude—and that’s an emotion that is kindled by recognizing that you’ve been lucky to be in the situation that you’re in—that reliably evokes positive feelings in you and creates this whole cascade of good outcomes in your sphere.

Why that’s so I think is interesting. We could speculate about that, but the evidence is just very clear about it. The Buddhists have ways of thinking about this. If you want to get from A to B, maybe the best way to do that is not to set your sights directly on B but to develop some intermediate goal. You want to be a good person and maybe you’ll get to B more reliably if you try to be a good person than if you tried directly to get to B by any means possible.

Do people in poverty or poor living conditions have bad luck?

If you’re born on the South Side of Chicago, you can succeed. We have vivid examples of people who have succeeded. Deval Patrick, the former governor of Massachusetts, went to Harvard, became a successful business person, became the governor of Massachusetts. He’s a wonderfully successful human being, but if you’re born, like he was, on the South Side of Chicago, it’s much less likely that you’ll be able to succeed on that scale, as he is very quick to acknowledge.

He worked hard, he was talented, but he got some very big breaks along the way that enabled him to succeed. So sure, I think most executives who are successful tend to think they made it on their own, but if you’ll ask them, “How do you think things would have played out for you if you’d been born in Somalia?” They’ll think about it for an instant and say, “Yeah, it wouldn’t have played out nearly as well.” Most of them will acknowledge that without hesitation.

A few will say I would have prevailed anyway. We can be skeptical of that point of view. But most people are not blind to the fact that their circumstances mattered a great deal to them, if you can get them only to reflect for a moment on that.

What’s the luckiest thing that could happen to you?

The luckiest thing that could ever happen to you is to be born of the right parents at the right time in the right place. If you’re in a developed country that has good institutions, such that if you’re talented and hardworking, you have a chance to make something of yourself, that’s a huge lucky start for you in life.

But having talent and the inclination to work hard, where do those come from? We don’t know exactly, except to say that they’re some mysterious combination of your genes and your upbringing, and those come almost exclusively from your parents. So having the right parents is really a huge part of that picture.

You’re just lucky if you’ve got a temperament that urges you to get up in the morning and hit the ground running. Not everyone has that temperament. It’s probably useful for you to think that it’s up to you whether you work hard, and it is up to you—you have to summon the will to do it—but some people summon the will, others don’t. And ultimately there’s a lot to the temperaments that we inherit that explains who does and who doesn’t.

Is genetics luck?

Oh, the genes that you inherit are a huge element of your luck. The fact that you exist at all is an extraordinary stroke of luck. The odds are really sharply against any one individual even existing.

But that’s not interesting. I think it is useful for people who have succeeded if they’re smart, if they had good upbringing—those are good things. You should feel good about them, but you should be hesitant to claim too much moral credit for them. You didn’t choose your parents, you didn’t choose how you were brought up. That was a lot of things external to you.

Why don’t economists acknowledge the influence of our surroundings?

You know, that’s been something that I’ve tried to puzzle through for many decades. I think most people, if you ask them in the context of specific examples, “Do your surroundings affect your evaluations of things?” They would agree without hesitation that, yes, they do.

If you were a driver in the 1920s, if your car got to 60 miles an hour eventually, it would have been considered breathtakingly fast. Now to get to 60 miles an hour in less than 5 seconds, people wonder what’s the matter that they didn’t put a little bit more oomph under the hood in this car. Everything is contextual.

The people getting married today spend $31,000 on average on their wedding receptions. Inflation-adjusted terms in 1980, they spent $10,000. Nobody is arguing, to my knowledge, that the couples getting married today are happier because they’re spending more than three times as much. In fact, there’s evidence that people who spend more actually are more likely to divorce than people who spend less.

But still, it’s quite reasonable that people want the guests to remember their daughter’s wedding as a special occasion, but special is a purely relative concept. If other people are spending more and we spend a pittance, then we’re thought to have failed to recognize what a special day it was.

So those types of judgments, I think, are so commonplace that everybody acknowledges them when they think about them, but still economic models assume that context has no effect whatsoever on evaluations like that. Why is that? Great question. I’ve got some thoughts about it, but it would take a long time to unpack that. I’m going to keep thinking and writing about it. Maybe I’ll write a book about that someday.

Why do you say chance events have grown more important recently?

That’s really connected with the change in market structure that we’ve seen in recent decades. Technology lets the people who are good at what they do extend their reach much more broadly than before. If you’re the best author of tax software, now you can do the taxes for tens of millions of people everywhere. Used to be that people would go to local accountants for advice about that.

So what those kinds of markets do, is they set up huge tournaments. Thousands, tens of thousands of people try to become anointed as the best at what they do and so the prize, if you win, is much, much bigger than before even if the person who wins is only one-tenth of 1 percent better, or just a little luckier, than the next best contestant who didn’t win. So luck matters more in the sense that the difference between what you get if you win and what you get if you don’t win is much bigger.

The fact that there’s so many contestants means that there’s crowding at the top, so that the very best contestant is much less likely to win than before because there will be others who are almost as good, many of whom will be much luckier than he was. So even if luck doesn’t count for very much, that little extra push from luck will be enough to overcome the slight disadvantage a candidate might have on the talent and effort scales.

What role does luck play in science?

A discovery is more likely to have impact if it occurs in a context in which people are receptive to it. It’s been said … Max Plank once remarked that science makes progress one funeral at a time. People don’t change their minds, people die, and other people who are more receptive to ideas take their place.

So if your idea comes out in a context in which people are inclined to focus on it and think about it, it’s much more likely to have impact than if it comes out at a time when people are focused on other things. So, yes, luck matters quite a bit.

What would you be if you weren’t an economist?

I became an economist purely by chance. I don’t think it was ever something that I carefully planned. If my career began today the way it had begun back when it did begin, I would have been out of the profession in short order. I was lucky to get the job I got and luckier still to remain in it.

So, if I hadn’t become an economist, I don’t know what I would have done. Probably not anything that worked out as well for me as what I have done. But if I could have dialed in any option I wanted, I think I would have become a cartoonist.

I so admire the economy of expression that’s available to the cartoonist. To capture so much in just a few ink strokes and to convey so much about the human condition so economically. That’s what I would choose to do.

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