Is the Key to Getting Rich Work, Risk or Luck?
The role of luck in getting wealthy is no longer just an academic issue: it's also a political one.
If we assume that wealth comes from working hard, taking great personal risk and coming up with great ideas, then the wealthy don't necessarily "owe" society for their success.
But if the rich are simply lucky, or if they get wealthy on the back of America's publicly funded infrastructure, they owe more of a debt in the form of taxes or philanthropy.
The debate over luck or work, self or community, came into the spotlight last summer with a commencement speech at Princeton by author Michael Lewis. The speech was called "Don't Eat Fortune's Cookie." Success, he said, often comes from luck and happenstance—yet the successful often "rationalize" their success as stemming from talent or work or intelligence.
"Recognize that if you have had success, you have also had luck—and with luck comes obligation," he wrote. "You owe a debt, and not just to your Gods. You owe a debt to the unlucky."
President Barack Obama reignited the debate during the election campaign with the "you didn't build that" line. Many said it was taken out of context—he was talking about roads and bridges and public schools—but it still hit a nerve. And it fueled the battle over the wealthy paying their "fair share" in taxes.
But what about the wealthy themselves? A study from Spectrem Group, the wealth research firm, shows that while some of the wealthy say luck played a role in their success, many say hard work, education and risk-taking played a much bigger role.
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Among people worth $5 million or more, more than 98 percent cited hard work as a "wealth creation factor." More than 90 percent cited education, followed by "smart investing," "frugality" and then "taking risk."
Slightly more than half of those surveyed cited "being at the right place at the right time" as a factor in their success—ranking it far below hard work and education.
Among business owners, however, the number of self-described "lucky wealthy" is much higher: 79 percent of them cited "being at the right place at the right time" as a factor in their success. Fully 68 percent of business owners cited "luck" as a factor.
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Among corporate executives, 64 percent cited "being at the right place and right time" as a factor in their success while half cited "luck."
So are the wealthy downplaying luck or is wealth truly self-made?
"One way to interpret the data is that it's a balance," said George Walper of Spectrem Group. "Some acknowledge that their success is partly based on luck. But some people don't. And maybe ego plays a role among the people who may understate the effects of luck."
—By CNBC's Robert Frank. Follow him on Twitter @robtfrank.