The Ramifications of Not Considering Luck

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The Atlantic Monthly has become one of those clubby, patrician magazines that the comfortable read to reassure themselves of their comfort. Every so often, though, they surprise me.

One of those surprises is in this month’s issue, an article by Robert H. Frank called “Why Luck Matters More than You Might Think.” In it, he discusses our natural tendencies to explain prior events as somehow logically inevitable. Thus, persons who have succeeded have done so because of their talent, hard work and moral virtue; those who have not succeeded must be missing one or more of those characteristics.

As I discuss in the book in the entry on Meritocracy, this is a partial truth at best. We have all employed our best efforts within contexts over which we have no control. We have family histories and childhood resources that we did not control. Our work is subject to public policy considerations that we do not control. We place our talents in service of an academic job market that we do not control. Sometimes those winds are in our favor… sometimes they are not.

For our purposes today, I’d like us to consider those times when the tides have lifted us, to consider those random facts of our experience that have offered us a boost. Why does this matter? I’ll let Mr. Frank answer that:

…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. It may even make the lucky less likely to support the conditions (such as high-quality public infrastructure and education) that made their own success possible.

So what elements of utter luck made it possible for me to go to, and to succeed in, graduate school? Here’s a very partial list:

  • As a child, I was left largely alone in a home filled with books and magazines. That meant that I had enormous amounts of time to read, and to select for myself what I read.
  • I was born without the Internet, which meant that I learned how to focus. And I went to grad school with the Internet, by which time I’d acquired some self-discipline.
  • My mom and my aunts loved to play cards and invited me to play as well, which meant that I could manipulate numbers quickly at a very early age.
  • As a college student at Berkeley (and as a grad student at Milwaukee), I was encouraged to take courses outside my degree program, discovering a body of ideas and possible connections that would never have occurred within the intellectual monoculture of a discipline.
  • When I finished undergrad at Berkeley, I knew that I wanted to stay there for my PhD, but I thought I should apply to a backup school, too.

Change any one of those conditions, or any one of hundreds of others, and my life would have been markedly different. Add in the hundreds of elements of generosity, of people doing something they needn’t have done to teach me or to open a door, and I can see that everything I’ve been able to accomplish has been enabled, in fundamental ways.

Only by considering the advantages we’ve had and the generosities we’ve received can we be conscious of the advantages we should try to confer, and the generosities we might offer.