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Desperately seeking success: Or maybe hoping for a bit of luck

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The link between success and luck is stronger than most people think, writes Economist Robert Frank of Cornell University in The New York Times. The difficulty that some have with his argument is that it challenges everything about the American dream. But, sadly for all those people who like to think that they are fully responsible for "pulling themselves up by their boot strings", "brushing themselves off", and "thinking about tomorrow", it is very much the truth.

 

Professor Frank says, "Contrary to what many parents tell their children, talent and hard work are neither necessary nor sufficient for economic success. It helps to be talented and hard-working, of course, yet some people enjoy spectacular success despite having neither attribute... Far more numerous are talented people who work very hard, only to achieve modest earnings. There are hundreds of them for every skilled, perseverant person who strikes it rich — disparities that often stem from random events."

A country such as the US, that prides itself on meritocracy, probably finds statements such as these pretty difficult to swallow. We all like to think that we are in charge of our own destiny, which is a very rational response, however the difficulty is that you simply can't discount pure coincidence, serendipity and luck from the outcomes. Hard work, risk-taking, and talent will only get you so far.

Simply being born in Australia or the US puts you in a better position to be successful, than if you were born in Yemen or Afghanistan. That isn't to deny the fact that some Yemenis or Afghans will be successful, it simply shows that you are simply more likely to live a safe, comfortable life, and therefore be successful if you were born in Australia, than in Somalia.

Princess Mary of Denmark is undoubtedly an economic success, but it was (mostly) luck that she was in the same pub in Sydney's Darling Harbour during the 2000 Olympics as Princess Frederik and noticed that he had a black American Express Card. I would even admit that much of my [meagre] success is very much a combination of some basic skills, and a fair bit of serendipity.

The issue that raised the ire of those "craaazy" right-wingers down at Fox has been that Frank has challenged the concept of pure meritocracy. Watch the very entertaining interview with Fox Business Anchor, Stuart Varney, to see the extreme end of the reaction. As I watched it, I felt like this must be scripted. It is pure comedy, except that Frank struggled so much to get his message across. But that is part and parcel of going on any Fox News program. Interviewees who have an alternative view to the host, should be prepared to be yelled at.

As Alain de Botton points out in Status Anxiety, “If the successful merited their success, it necessarily followed that the failures had to merit their failure. In a meritocratic age, justice appeared to enter in to the distribution of poverty as well as wealth."

This is a helpful argument for a democracy founded on individualism, and Fox is very good at using this argument when it argues against "socialist" policies, such as universal health care or welfare for the unemployed (you notice they don't use these arguments for other "socialist" enterprises, such as the police, or defence forces). We can also see why this protestant belief in working hard, planning, and taking risks is appealing to the "rational" democracies - rationality is built upon a foundation of humanism, reason, and control, and to argue that there will be some factors out of our control challenges the underlying principles of these concepts.

Obviously, it is not that simple - to some degree you "make" your own luck, by developing skills, taking risks, and setting goals. However, being born at a particular time and in a particular place; having access to financial support and stimulating environments during childhood; possessing a personality that enjoys taking risks and is outgoing are all situations and predispositions that set up a higher probability of economic success. However, there are many people who do very little, and still seem to be successful.

The other major issue to consider is the concept of success. Perhaps economic success is too shallow a term. In fact, while research shows that we need some level of economic stability to feel happy with our lives, the level of happiness does not increase linearly once we move beyond that certain level of economic success. Of course, having money can make your life easier, but the question is how much money do you need, and what are you trading off in return for that economic success?

Ultimately, we determine what we think is a measure of success. Stuart Varney seems to define success as having lots of money and possessions. Others may define success as having a loving family and stable relationships with friends. Others may simply feel successful in having an income, however meagre.

That's the thing about success - the moment we let others define it for us, it is out of our control, and we are likely to feel less happy with our lives. So, maybe the best way to be successful is to be content with what you have, and not use external factors to define our happiness.

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