The Role of Dice: A Review of Robert H. Frank’s ‘Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy’

On what is our success dependent? This book examines all the factors that determine financial status, asking crucial questions and finding some surprising results along the way.

Fortune is a fickle friend, but Robert H. Frank’s examination of it suggests that it may play a bigger role than we’ve believed. Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy aims to explain the somewhat rocky relationship between fortune and financial success in America from the standpoint of an economist. We learn why the beliefs surrounding success damage society and what we can do to change our ideologies on the subject.

Professor of Economics Poses Important Questions

Classically, luck is an impetuous concept. It’s an unattainable treasure when we don’t have it, and a fickle friend when it does come around. It leaves at the slightest provocation and comes to those lucky few who do possess it in an unquantifiable and mysterious manner—or at least that’s what New York Times best-selling author and Cornell professor of economics Robert H. Frank believes.

The rest of America isn’t so sure. While it’s comfortable to blame our misfortunes or the enviable success of others on such a capricious being, it isn’t rational. Right? If you work hard enough, then you can overcome chance and pave your road to wealth. In short, you make your destiny.

This book delves deep inside these strongly held beliefs. It examines why we as a society continue to hold tightly to the idea that luck and chance don’t play as significant a role in success as hard work.

Perhaps we put such a high value on a human being’s capacity for production that this becomes the end-all road to success rather than being in the right place at the right time. Frank examines the partisan parts of the issue, attempting to explain why the uber-elite cite hard work and, by extension, an innate superiority as the reason for their success, while others point out that many people work exceedingly hard yet achieve none of this.

How much of our success comes from hard work and how much of it comes from pure luck and chance? Frank says that luck plays a far bigger role in financial success than we’ve previously believed.

Being in the right place at the right time is critical. That isn’t to say that hard work and intelligence isn’t a factor, but both are crucial to success. We can see this evidenced in high-earning professional poker players and successful creatives who were gamblers, all of whom depend on luck and hard work to make their living. In life, as in a casino, chance always plays its role, but a highly intelligent and focused mind aids in different parts of the process.

Why can’t we translate the casino metaphor to our real lives? Frank claims that the outdated and desperate idea of meritocracy causes a rift in society that damages our sociological functions and our earth. He talks taxes and how the wealth gap causes a breakdown of the climate, social services, and quality of life for the working class in this thoughtful and heavily researched work.

Frank does not dilute the truth—or the truth as he sees it. He cites scientific research to back his claims, but the more compelling argument here is the truth we see around us every day. The highly polarized streets of America he walks open like a raw wound in this book, evoking an intentional emotional response The book’s affective treatement of its subject is not explicit—it’s clinical, and the passion, though there, is subtle.

America now has the largest disparity of wealth in the entire world — it’s critical to recognize inequality and the reasons behind the wage gap to try and bridge it effectively.

The Myth of Meritocracy and What Science Says

In Success and Luck, Frank explains that the uber-wealthy and their defenders fall back on the idea of meritocracy to justify their extreme financial success. But what is a meritocracy? As a modern idea, it signifies a societal structure in which wealth, goods, and positions result from merit rather than predetermined caste or other factors.

It’s interesting to note that the word was first used satirically by sociologist Michael Dunlop Young, who suggested the thing that America and societies across the world now experience—“meritocracy” cannot exist. We as humans are an inherently exclusive bunch, and any new societal caste (even one based on merit) would become exclusive almost immediately, as well.

If you’ve tried to build a business empire and become a billionaire lately, then you may see how this plays out in real life. If you haven’t tried, then it means you also see it. The idea that anyone, through hard work alone, can become a member of the uber-elite in the current social and political climate is ludicrous. Luck and chance, which include the family you may have been born into, must play a role. Such holds true not only for Americans but for societies across the world.

Richard Reeves explains the wealth gap in American society and how social mobility seems to correlate with factors beyond individual control.

Although we don’t put nearly as much stock into it as Frank would like us to, it’s glaringly clear that we do believe in luck. Almost unsurprisingly, one survey of British society showed that 26 percent of Brits own a good luck charm, most of which wear them for special occasions, like first dates, exams, and sporting events. Of this quarter, many take it a step further: 74 percent claiming they’d never throw their charm away, and 19 percent saying they’d never even risk washing their good luck charm. Short journals, poems, and reviews Nektan Casino published frequently also suggest this finding.

These superstitions are something that we cling to, yet Frank argues that when it comes to holding others up to our standard on the broader financial spectrum, we shrink. We believe in the myth of meritocracy, and it hurts us deeply as a whole.

Surprising Societal Effects and What We Can Do

What impact has this had on us? It blinds us to the initial advantages of the select few, instilling within us a dangerous and self-deprecating view of ourselves as individuals when we inevitably fail to achieve what luckier people have. If we believe that someone deserves to have wealth that we ourselves do not possess, that means we believe we don’t deserve the wealth. Frank puts forth the idea that this causes us to get behind political movements and make individual choices that can be detrimental to us in the long run.

The myth of meritocracy causes individual feelings of isolation and unworthiness while perpetuating a wealth disparity that is destructive to a functioning society.

He also argues that it creates a black-and-white marketplace with a cutthroat mentality that affects the whole of American society in a negative way, idolizing the “I” and obliterating the “we.” In a kind and thoughtful manner, he claims we’ve merely been tricked into believing that our current system is fair when, in fact, it isn’t.

Can we do something about it? Frank tells us earnestly that we can. By adopting political policies and a new system of taxation, we can mediate the inequality existing in our society today and, perhaps, save our planet. As an economist, he presents the numbers and the research to back this up, and you’ll find that his ideas hold water, at least at surface level.

As a whole, the book is quite readable and offers compelling arguments. Though the concept of freeing up billions of dollars to manage the American wealth gap may seem like a pipe dream, Frank somehow makes it seem achievable through calm rationality. It’s a must-read for anyone interested in the concept of luck and wealth, and you may be pleasantly surprised to find some of your strongly-held beliefs not only challenged but changed entirely.


Lyza Hayn

Lyza Hayn is a freelance writer from the Texas desert specializing in travel and cultural phenomena. When she isn't gallivanting around her own state searching for quaint towns and hidden watering holes, she's searching for the hottest new destinations around the world.

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