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Success and Luck by Robert H. Frank

Success and Luck by Robert H. Frank
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£21.95

When I became the No. 1 British table tennis player, I remember reflecting with pride on the “hard work” that had got me to the top, said Matthew Syed in The Times. What I was less keen to admit was the role luck had played in my success. Thanks to its “visionary” table tennis coach, my school produced several national champions. Had I lived “one door farther down”, I would have gone to another school. In this book, Robert Frank argues that luck plays a crucial role in success. Obviously, much depends on being born in a rich country. But even in relatively meritocratic nations, competition is so fierce that there are “thousands of candidates for a few prime positions” – which means that “tiny variations” in luck have “big effects”. Bill Gates, for instance, was “bright and hard-working”, but so were countless others. What made all the difference was his “astronomical good fortune” in attending one of the only private schools offering unlimited access to computers. Moreover, the “pay-off to luck” is only increasing, thanks to the “winner-takes-all” markets produced by globalisation.

The relationship between luck, talent and reward is knotty, said Jonathan Derbyshire in the FT. Most of us, as Frank points out, feel entitled to credit for innate skills we did nothing to earn. The subject is also “politically charged”. As conservatives rightly point out, those who do very well are usually talented and industrious. Yet as liberals point out, also rightly, countless others have those qualities and earn little. Frank makes “a pretty good fist” of thinking clearly about it all. The second part of the book argues that the most successful (and hence luckiest) should pay a large consumption tax, said Tim Wigmore in the New Statesman. This is less “convincing” than the rest. Nevertheless, Success and Luck is a “well-argued” book – and a useful reminder, as Napoleon said, that “ability is of little account without opportunity”.