If you want to succeed in your career, it’s useful to study what it takes.
Albert-László Barabási’s book The Formula: The Universal Laws of Success was published in 2018. The title sounds presumptuous. Can there be laws of success, much less universal ones? It turns out there’s much to learn from this book.
Barabási is a complex-networks researcher. He took his toolkit and applied it to the issue of performance and success, collaborating with others to produce a string of scientific papers. The Formula is a popular account of research on the topic.
To clarify: “success” here refers to careers and is measured by recognition and income, in other words fame and fortune. Success in other ways, for example being a good parent, being honest or helping others behind the scenes, is not covered because it is too hard to study mathematically.
A fundamental idea behind Barabási’s laws is that individual success derives from the community’s response to an individual’s performance, not from the performance itself. Barabási calls his five laws “universal,” but whether they apply outside the US requires further investigation. In any case, The Formula is fascinating. It is informative and engagingly written, and worth reading even if success in conventional terms is not your personal goal.
Performance and networks
The first law is “Performance drives success, but when performance can’t be measured, networks drive success.” In some fields, for example chess and competitive individual sports, performance can be measured by observing who wins. If you want to succeed in chess, there’s no substitute for becoming a high-level performer.
In most fields, however, performance can’t be measured in a straightforward way. Barabási uses the example of art, giving examples of visual artists who are highly talented yet languish in relative obscurity because they exhibit only in local galleries. Artists who take the initiative to promote their work more widely then have opportunities for being exhibited in higher-profile venues, leading to ever more recognition.
Another example is the Mona Lisa. Did you ever wonder whether its fame is due to its unique artistic merit, or something else? Barabási tells how the Mona Lisa went from obscurity to world recognition.
The implication is that if you’re a very hard worker, willing to put in tens of thousands of hours of dedicated practice at your chosen craft, and willing to wait decades for recognition, then you have a chance in a field where performance can be measured. On the other hand, if you’re keen on networking and don’t want to work quite so hard, then pick a field where measuring performance involves a lot of subjectivity.
Barabási cites a study of elite classical music competitions. In piano competitions, each player performs difficult works, some assigned, some their own choice. There might be a dozen expert judges, who make their assessments independently. Everything seems fair. However, the trouble is that in classical music performance, the standard is so very high that it’s hard to tell the players apart. The judges might actually choose in part according to who looks like a virtuoso. The differences between elite performers are so small that a break — for example, a competition prize — can launch someone on a solo career, while others of equal calibre are left behind.
This is an example of Barabási’s second law, which is “Performance is bounded, but success is unbounded.” Saying performance is bounded means that top performers, like the pianists, are all so good that it’s hard to tell their performances apart. But if you are the chosen one, getting a few lucky breaks, in particular endorsements from gatekeepers, then your fame and fortune can be enormous. Unbounded success like this comes only to a few, and it’s unfair, in the sense that so much depends on luck.
Think of the Olympic games. The gold medal winner in a popular event can become a household name. The silver medallist might be just a second slower but receives only a fraction of the glory and opportunities.
Success breeds success
Barabási’s third law is that previous success, combined with fitness, predicts future success. The academic term for success breeding success is “preferential attachment.” It has an amazingly strong influence.
One experiment involved people listening to unfamiliar pop songs. Members of one group of subjects gave ratings to each song without knowing what other group members thought of the same songs. In a different group, subjects were able to see the ratings of other listeners. The experimenters were tricky: they seeded the ratings, giving some songs a head start. These songs ended up being the most popular.
The message is that most people go along with the crowd. Their preferences are influenced by what others rate highly.
In academia, this is what’s going on when certain theories and theorists are favoured. If lots of researchers are citing Foucault, then the common assumption is that Foucault’s ideas are more incisive or fruitful — better than those of other theorists. There’s a good article about this sort of favouritism, titled “How to become a dominant French philosopher: the case of Jacques Derrida.”
Preferential attachment is important in business. A start-up known to have received funding is likely to receive more funding. One way to rig the system is to pretend your own money is from someone else, giving the impression of financial endorsement.
Because of preferential attachment, the first public rating of a product, for example a book on Amazon, is more likely to be an indication of its value. Later reviewers are likely to follow the crowd, so when a product has lots of ratings, its final rating deviates more from its fitness. So when you read a book, don’t read the endorsements first — judge it for yourself.
The team: who gets the credit for success?
Barabási’s fourth law is that when a team needs diversity and balance to succeed, an individual receives credit for the team’s achievements. Unfair!
Barabási has quite a few suggestions about how to make a team effective. He says, “Trust someone to be in charge and build an expert, diverse support group around him or her.” This is essential for breakthroughs. Top-rate individual team members are not enough, and can actually derail a group. “What matters is that people are offered opportunities to build rapport and contribute in equal measure.”
There’s an obvious tension here between building a top team and the merit principle in recruitment. In hiring employees, selection is supposed to be on the basis of merit (though there are lots of deviations from this). But choosing on the basis of individual merit isn’t always the best way to develop a productive team, at least one that has autonomy and is expected to be innovative.
Barabási says that credit for teamwork is based on perception, not contribution, and that a single individual receives credit for team success. So if you’re an aspiring newcomer, part of a productive team, at some point you will need to venture out on your own. There are additional biases involved. Studies of academic economists show that men lose nothing by collaborating, but women gain little, and women who collaborate with men gain nothing at all.
Among mathematicians, there is a common belief that to make a great breakthrough, you have to be young. Some famous mathematicians, like Évariste Galois, made their mark when quite young. By age 35, you’re over the hill.
Barabási’s fifth law challenges this belief. The law states that with persistence, success can come at any age. The key is persistence. Barabási found that young researchers are more productive: they write more articles each year. However, their articles written at older ages are just as likely to be breakthroughs. They are less likely to make breakthroughs at older ages because they aren’t trying as hard. (Maybe they become jaded or go into administration.)
Making a breakthrough is a matter of luck. You don’t know in advance which idea or project will be highly successful, so you just have to keep trying. For Barabási, this finding is encouraging. He’s getting older but now knows it’s worth persisting.
Should success be a goal?
For me, reading about Barabási’s “universal laws of success” raises the question of whether the conventional idea of success, as fame and fortune, is an appropriate goal. Who benefits from your success?
Surely you benefit from your own success. That’s obvious enough — or is it? Research shows that acquiring a lot of money is not a particularly promising way to increase happiness; other routes, such as physical activity, relationships, gratitude and optimism are more reliable for promoting happiness. Fame is not a reliable road to happiness, either. It can create some relationships but undermine others.
Some Olympic athletes fall into depression after they achieve their goal of a gold medal. Many athletes, and non-athletes, achieve more satisfaction from striving towards a goal than actually achieving it. As the saying goes, “There is no road to happiness; happiness is the road.”
Do others benefit from your success? That depends quite a lot. You might be very generous in helping and supporting others, using your skills and networks to assist those who are less fortunate. You might be a role model for others. On the other hand, you might have trampled over others in your efforts to get ahead, and become a heartless exploiter, continually on the lookout for challengers who must be crushed. Some business leaders are generous; others are better known for their ruthlessness and bullying.
Developing skills to a high level seems like a good thing. Surely it’s worth becoming an outstanding teacher or violinist. Again, it all depends. Some people with advanced skills, and who achieve success as a result, may be causing more harm than good. A soldier can become a highly skilled at killing. Is that good if it’s the bad guys are being killed or bad if the good guys are the target? A politician can become highly skilled at manipulating public perceptions. It might be for a higher cause or it might be just to obtain power.
The implication is that success alone is not necessarily a worthy goal. It can be better to have worthwhile goals, such as being ethical, enjoying life and helping others. If, in pursuing such goals, you achieve success, that’s just a little added bonus.