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Success and Luck

Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy

By Robert H. Frank
12-minute read
Audio available
Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy by Robert H. Frank

Success and Luck (2016) reveals the role of luck in the lives of the most famous achievers in sports, business and the arts. These blinks explain how most of us are blind to the impact of luck on a person’s success, and also reveal how this ignorance may result in public services being devalued.

  • (Aspiring) business leaders
  • Government officials
  • People interested in the irrationality of human behavior

Robert H. Frank is a Professor of Economics and the H. J. Louis Professor of Management at the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University. He writes a column for the New York Times and is the author of The Winner-Take-All Society and The Economic Naturalist.

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Success and Luck

Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy

By Robert H. Frank
  • Read in 12 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 7 key ideas
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Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy by Robert H. Frank
Synopsis

Success and Luck (2016) reveals the role of luck in the lives of the most famous achievers in sports, business and the arts. These blinks explain how most of us are blind to the impact of luck on a person’s success, and also reveal how this ignorance may result in public services being devalued.

Key idea 1 of 7

In hindsight, everything seems obvious –  but nothing is quite so predictable, especially when it comes to success.

If you've ever had the misfortune of being doored while pedalling along on your bike, you'll know that no amount of foresight or anticipation can compensate for the fact that the world is unpredictable.

Even so, hindsight can play tricks on you. If you replay the bike accident in your mind, it will seem all so preventable. This phenomenon is called hindsight bias, the predisposition to assume after the fact that an event was predictable, even when it wasn't.

This way of thinking also means that we may unwittingly accept inferences or hypotheses as foreseeable facts.

The American sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld investigated this tendency toward hindsight bias in an experiment in the 1940s. He told participants that, according to a previous study, people from rural areas were much more adept at handling the challenges and strains of military service than city dwellers were.

All the people Lazarsfeld spoke to found this to be an obvious conclusion. However, the findings of the previous study had actually led to the exact opposite conclusion – Lazarsfeld had deliberately falsely reported the results to demonstrate hindsight bias. Participants considered his findings easy to accept because of their predisposition to see any given outcome as logical or predictable.

What's more, hindsight bias is widely applicable, especially when we consider fame and success.

You might not believe it, but the Mona Lisa was not always as celebrated as it is today. That's hindsight bias playing tricks on you.

In fact, it wasn't until 1911 that the Mona Lisa began achieving the fame it enjoys today. In that year, an Italian, Vincenzo Peruggia, stole it from the Louvre in Paris. When he, and the painting, emerged two years later in Florence, its reputation had soared. Peruggia was lionized for bringing the painting “back” to Italy, and the fame of the painting was assured. Meanwhile, Peruggia had only been trying to get the thing off his hands!

The point is, as humans we tend to explain away history and trends as predictable, especially when hindsight is applied. This is as true for our understanding of fame as it is for our interpretation of any reports and information we come across.

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