Just My Luck (or is it?)

Michael Lewis at Princeton
Michael Lewis at Princeton

I don’t think Michael Lewis was trying to make a political point when he gave the commencement address at Princeton University last month (watch the whole thing here). Lewis, the author of several bestselling books including MoneyballLiar’s Poker, and The Big Short, knows a thing or two about the interdependence of luck and success and he was sharing his thoughts on the matter with the about-to-be Princeton graduates. Here’s a taste of what he told them:

Life’s outcomes, while not entirely random, have a huge amount of luck baked into them. Above all, recognize that if you have had success, you have also had luck — and with luck comes obligation. You owe a debt, and not just to your Gods. You owe a debt to the unlucky. I make this point because — along with this speech — it is something that will be easy for you to forget.

He’s right about that last point; it is easy to forget. It’s also convenient, Lewis told Jeffrey Brown in a follow-up interview on PBS’ NewsHour. Most people would acknowledge that both luck and merit are important ingredients to success. It’s just that people often like to feel like they are the authors of their accomplishments and ignore everything and everyone else who played a role. “As they age, and succeed,” Lewis told the graduates, “people feel their success was somehow inevitable.”

Now Lewis isn’t trying to deny Princeton graduates (or anyone else) credit for their success. He just wants them to take a minute to “dwell on just how fortunate they are.” His hope is simply that they have some compassion for people who worked just as hard they did but were less fortunate. As it turns out, there’s some research that suggests that taking a minute to dwell on your good fortune might have exactly that effect.


Way over on the other side of the country, on the campus of another elite university, Chris Bryan and his colleagues (PDF) asked Stanford University students to take a minute (or ten) to tell the story of how they got into the prestigious college. Not all the students got the same instructions, though. Half of the students were asked to focus on the role that “hard work, self-discipline and wise decisions played in helping you get here.” The other half were told to focus on the role of “chance, opportunity and help from others.” Neither group had any difficulty writing the essay. As Bryan, who will be joining the faculty at UC San Diego this fall, explained to me in an email:

People writing about merit would tell the story most successful people probably tell themselves by default--reminiscing about the long hours they spent studying, the times they made the "tough choice" they knew to be right, or how they skipped nights out with friends to stay home and work on an important paper. In some ways, the most interesting thing was that most people who got the good fortune instructions had no trouble acknowledging the lucky breaks they had gotten. Many said things like "I definitely worked hard to get where I am but I realize how fortunate I was to be born into a family that could afford to give me the support and resources I needed to succeed."

So it seems that people are capable of seeing the role of luck and merit in contributing to their success. What Lewis might be particularly pleased to see, though, is how dwelling on luck, and the help they’d received from others, changed people’s attitudes. Compared to the students who wrote about their own merit, students who wrote about the role of good fortune in their success were, on average, more strongly in favor of policies like universal healthcare and access to unemployment benefits, which presumably helps with one’s obligation to the less fortunate. In addition to increasing support for liberal policies, thinking about one’s luck decreased support for conservative policies like building more prisons and instituting a flat tax. As Bryan explained to me, “it’s not that people’s ideology doesn’t matter, it’s just that their views on important issues can move around significantly depending on how they think about their own success. When they’re focused on their own talent and effort, they’re much less willing to contribute to the common good than when they pause to recognize that luck and help from other people played a big part in their ability to succeed.”

So when Michael Lewis encouraged Princeton students to remember how lucky they are, it turns out there were political implications. That became very clear this week after conservatives seized on a recent speech by President Obama that resonated with the one Lewis gave. Obama, like Lewis, was making the case that nobody achieves success on their own.  Here’s an excerpt:

Let me tell you something. There are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there. If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that.

Given Bryan’s research, this type of speech should be very useful for Obama – getting people to think about the role of luck and the help they’ve received from others ought to lead people to be more in favor of liberal policies and less in favor of conservative ones. In response, the Romney camp put out an ad that spliced the video to show Obama saying: “Let me tell you something. If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that” (Maybe giving the quote appropriate context is socialist?) What’s more interesting, though, is that even in attacking Obama, Romney concedes the very point Obama was making. He doesn’t deny that luck or the contributions of others are an important part of success any more than Obama thinks that hard work doesn’t matter.

Just like the Stanford students in Chris Bryan’s study, most Americans understand that success requires both hard work as well as some luck and the help of others. The political argument, as Andrew Sullivan explains, is over what makes for the right balance. If you compare the two presidential candidates' speeches this week, in many respects, Obama and Romney are essentially saying the same thing (take a look at the ad by the Obama campaign below). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z-z-U57BaSc The real battle is over which part -- luck and help from others, or hard work and merit -- will get top billing in people’s minds in November. Obama hopes that Americans, like those Princeton undergraduates, will take Michael Lewis’s message to heart. He hopes they will remember that there are plenty of people who worked just as hard as them but were not quite as lucky and recognize the debt they owe. Romney hopes they will simply remember how hard they’ve worked and let everyone else fend for themselves. Good luck!