Robert H. Frank’s Concise ‘Success and Luck’

A book that says nothing about the winner-take-all postsecondary labor market - but might have.

August 24, 2016

Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy by Robert H. Frank.

Published in April of 2016.

Robert H. Frank has a simple point to make in his concise book (208 pages - 5 hours 19 minute) Success and Luck - that achievement is the result of both individual effort and luck.

This is not an original argument. 

Leonard Mlodinow’s excellent 2009 book The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives is the best popular nonfiction work that I know of as to why we overestimate the impact of our actions on our successes (and failures), and underestimate the role of chance.

What makes Success and Luck different is that Frank connects the importance of luck in determining personal economic success with a set of larger policy recommendations.  Frank argues for a progressive consumption tax.  He thinks that the U.S. is under-investing in the type of physical and social infrastructure that underpins much of our current prosperity, an under-investment that threatens the future economic and social well-being of our children and grandchildren.

Further, Frank believes that once the most successful amongst us understand that they owe their success to their hard work and some good luck - that they will be more likely to support redistributive economic policies.

I’m not sure if Success and Luck will convince anyone to change their views about taxation.  (Or raising the minimum wage, or providing quality childcare, or affordable college tuition, or healthcare, or anything else).  Frank believes that social change can happen one conversation at a time.  He cites the example of marriage equality as a social issue in which many people changed their minds about relatively quickly - a change that led to some fundamental shifts in policy and law.

While reading Success and Luck, I kept wondering if Frank would turn his critical lens back on higher ed. 

He writes eloquently about how getting a tenure track job at Cornell was a result of good fortune as much as talent and drive, and how his later academic success (tenure, esteem, fame, and money from a popular textbook) are also the partial results of good luck.

What Frank never talks about is the winner-take-all nature the postsecondary labor market.  (To be fair, I don’t remember if higher ed was a subject of Frank’s excellent 1996 book The Winner-Take-All Society, but the topic is not covered in this latest book).

The academic caste system, one where a (shrinking) few enjoy the privileges of secure employment and academic freedom - where the many negotiate insecurity - seems like the perfect subject for a book on success and luck. 

Would those with tenure spend more of their own political capital working to change the system in support of contingent faculty if they believed that their own academic career success is a result of - at least in part - some good luck?

How often do we talk about the role of luck in determining the winners and losers of the higher ed security / status game?

What are you reading?



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