The Myth of Meritocracy and the Structure of Luck

This recent Thinking Allowed podcast summarises a recently published book –Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy by Robert H. Frank

success-and-luck-frankThe key message of the book is that almost everyone who succeeds (in education, or business for example) does so on merit – they are both hardworking and talented, but they are also lucky, and in recent years, social scientists have discovered that chance plays a much larger role in important life outcomes than most people imagine.

The book is thus a challenge to the rhetoric of meritocracy, and subverts the idea that people who succeed do so purely on their own hard work and effort, purely on their merit.

Frank provides his own personal example to illustrate the huge role that luck played in his own life – He had a heart attack while playing tennis, and had it not been for the lucky fact that an ambulance which had been called out for another nearby accident which had proved less serious than initially thought was could be diverted to him, he would have died.

Laurie Taylor, the presenter of Thinking Allowed, offers his example of a chance phone-call from a Radio 4 executive decades ago which kick-started his radio 4 career – they needed a talk show guest on a particular topi, and he just happened to be the person who was contacted at that time.

Frank says that if you remind people they’ve been lucky, they get angry, but if you ask them to recall situations in which they’ve been lucky in their lives.

The commentators agree that the rhetoric surrounding, or myth of meritocracy, is not as pronounced in the

The podcast then goes on to explore the idea that might be a ‘structure to luck’ – for example, it was much easier for those born in the 1970s to go to university because of the increased opportunities, while many of that (my!) generation’s parents and parents wouldn’t have been able to go even if they had the ability, because there were simply fewer universities, and so no where near as much opportunity.

Another example given is that working class kids are disadvantaged by the structure of luck where their schools are under-resourced compared to middle class kids have their paths smoothed by their access to cosmpolitan cultural and social capital.

Most people recognise that there is a structure to luck if you give them the example of being born of good parents in a country you can succeed if you are hard working; compared to being born in a country such as Somalia, for example.

Frank also points out that if you ask successful people to tell the story of how they became successful, and ask them to point to any examples where they were lucky, they can all point out several of these (however, if you just remind them that they are wealthy just because they are lucky, they resist the idea, so the info you get out of them depends on the tone in which you ask the questions!).

Despite all of the evidence that luck is crucial to success, in the U.S. at least there is a very persistent myth of the self-made man, the idea that those who have succeeded have made it entirely on their own efforts. (This is less common in Britain, where we are (apparently?) painfully aware of how social class limits some and empowers others).

The problem with this myth of the self-made man is that it gives the successful a sense of entitlement to keeping the fruits of their labour, and this is especially problematic given the recent emergence of what Frank calls the new ‘winner-takes all markets’ – we don’t have local markets anymore, what we increasingly have global markets where a few people can monopolise and perfect a good or service and then flog it to the masses.

Frank describes how, in a world increasingly dominated by winner-take-all markets, chance opportunities and trivial initial advantages often translate into much larger ones–and enormous income differences, thus over time the level of inequality increases.

Ultimately where these (neoliberal) myths come to shape political and economic policy, everyone suffers – tax policy has changed over the last 40 years in the US and UK which allows the wealthy to keep more of the returns on their wealth (part of the rationale being that they’ve earned it on their merits) – this means that less money gets re-invested in the public infrastructure, which ultimately harms everyone – rich and poor alike.

Frank uses the useful analogy of a Ferrari owner driving on a road with potholes compared to a Porsche owner driving on well-surfaced roads – the idea here is that if we forced the the super rich to pay higher taxes, they wouldn’t be as rich, but they’d be happier, just like the rest of us.

The book is in part a plea to the successful to remember and acknowledge the role which luck has played in their success, and to further recognise that they don’t deserve to keep such a high proportion of the fruits of their labour.



Frank argues, we could decrease the inequality driven by sheer luck by adopting simple, unintrusive policies that would free up trillions of dollars each year–more than enough to fix our crumbling infrastructure, expand healthcare coverage, fight global warming, and reduce poverty, all without requiring painful sacrifices from anyone.

NB – I haven’t actually read the book, so if you want more on possible policy solutions, I suggest you buy it –  I did pop out to Waterstones having listened to the podcast to buy it, but they didn’t have it in stock, I ended up spending an hour browsing and then buying two other books to add to the unread pile.

Commentary – Application to this year’s Apprentice 

It’s worth reflecting on just how applicable the above is to the latest winner of The Apprentice – Alana, yes she’s hard-working, yes she’s talented enough to perfect five cake recipes, but then again so are literally thousands of other people in the United Kingdom. Dare I suggest that if Alana wasn’t lucky enough to tick all of the following boxes, she would have been stuck on an average income for the rest of her life like all of the other hard working and talented professional bakers in the country:

Alana’s luck:

  1. She’s a rare combination of sexy and mumsy all rolled into one – just what a premium cakes business requires, and let’s face it, for £250k Sugar’s got a sweet deal on that image.
  2. The success of Bake-Off (and maybe it’s fragmentation) suggests there’s a huge market in baking to be tapped into. Sugar wouldn’t invest in something without a huge market potential.
  3. Her main brand-competition is clearly on the decline given her coke habit and her domestic violence victim status (unfortunate because of the physical and emotional scars, and more so because her public really don’t wanna have to think about that do they!)
  4. One of Alan’s side-kicks clearly identified with her throughout the process.
  5. Her parents were able to afford to build her her own personal kitchen in which to perfect her cake-recipes.
  6. Her uncle owns a restaurant which kick started her cake-sales business.

I mean come on, this is hardly success based on merit alone! In fairness to Alana, she probably knows it! 

Related Posts 

Lies, Damn Lies, and The Apprentice?

Or is Alan Sugar some kind of Calvinist God?


‘One in four entrepreneurs who start businesses fail within the first 24 months…. Already in this process I have invested £1.25 million pounds in 5 businesses, and they haven’t failed, and the reason they haven’t failed is because they’re being mentored by me’.

Alan Sugar, introductory speech to this year’s Apprentices (2016)

While the first two statements above may well be true, the idea that the crucial factor in the last five winners’ enterprises succeeding is Alan’s mentoring is possibly nonsense – a more likely reason Sugar’s start-ups have all succeeded is that of the 18 candidates or so who start the show every year, at least 10 of them have been cherry-picked because they’ve got very sensible business ideas.

The chances are that of all of the start-ups Sugar ends up with would almost certainly have succeeded if the candidates had just sought out venture-capital, given that he’s got an enormous pool of genuine talent to start with (at least 6 are guff-candidates, but there’s always enough sense in there too), and that then gets whittled down further.



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