Jonathan Derbyshire at the Financial Times:
Frank’s argument in Success and Luck is easily summarised: the idea of meritocracy and the assumption that successful people get where they are solely by dint of their own efforts disguise the extent to which “success and failure often hinge decisively on events completely beyond any individual’s control”.
Take the case of Al Pacino. He has been at the top of his chosen field for so long that it’s hard to imagine an alternative history in which he did not succeed as an actor. Yet, Frank observes, Pacino owes his dazzling career to a “highly improbable early casting decision”: Francis Ford Coppola’s insistence, against the wishes of studio executives, that Pacino play Michael Corleone in the film adaptation of Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather. The studio wanted Warren Beatty or Ryan O’Neal in the role, and only gave in when Coppola threatened to abandon the project. You might say that Pacino would have succeeded eventually anyway, but, as Frank notes, there are thousands of talented actors who simply never got the kind of break he owed to a tyro director in charge of his first big-budget film.
It is hard to think clearly about luck and success (although Frank makes a pretty good fist of doing so). This difficulty stems partly from the fact that we all share some very deep-rooted intuitions about concepts such as talent and entitlement or desert, which tend to collide with claims about the role that luck plays in our lives. Frank suggests, for instance, that it is “perfectly intelligible that most of us feel entitled to credit for possessing skills we did nothing to earn” — or at least for putting those skills to good use.