Talent + Grit + Luck = Success

“Self-made” people underestimate their fortunate circumstances and their plain good luck. That’s the argument, in the May Atlantic, of Robert Frank, a Cornell economist whose writings I have admired.

Drawing from his new book, Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy, Frank notes that “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.” This brings to mind Albert Bandura’s description of the enduring significance of chance events that can deflect us down a new vocational road, or into marriage. My favorite example is his anecdote of the book editor who came to Bandura’s lecture on the “Psychology of Chance Encounters and Life Paths” and ended up marrying the woman seated next to him.

Frank notes that when wealthy people discount both others’ support and plain luck (which includes not being born in an impoverished place) the result is “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.”

“Surely,” he adds, “it’s a short hop from overlooking luck’s role in success to feeling entitled to keep the lion’s share of your income—and to being reluctant to sustain the public investments that let you succeed in the first place.” In a presumed just world, the rich get the riches they deserve, which they don’t want drained by high taxes that support the less deserving.

I am keenly aware of my own good luck. My becoming a textbook author, and all that has followed from that—including trade books and other science writing and speaking—is an outgrowth of my a) being invited in 1978 to a small international retreat of social psychologists near Munich, b) being seated throughout the conference near a distinguished American colleague, who c) chanced to mention my name the following January when McGraw-Hill called him seeking an author for a new social psychologist text. I could live my life over and the combined probability of those convergent events would be essentially nil.

The resulting book, and the introductory texts that followed, were not my idea. But they are an enduring reminder that chance or luck—or I might call it Providence—can channel lives in new directions.