It reads like the guest list for one of the most interesting dinner parties ever: Miles Davis, Aristotle, Darlene Love, Albert Einstein, Andy Warhol, Ben and Jerry. And those are just some of the people who appear in The Formula, a new book about the “laws of success,” by network scientist Albert-László Barabási. “You’ve got to have fun when you write a book, and you also aim for diversity,” says Barabási, director of the Center for Complex Network Research at Northeastern University, explaining one reason for that eclectic lineup. Another reason: “These laws apply to all of us, independent of the time that you live in and the domain of your interest.”
Barabási got the idea for the book after a “fabulous” paper from his network lab, about using mobile phones to detect disasters, became a disaster in its own right. “It was a total failure,” he recalls, “one journal after another rejected it.” He joked with a colleague who worked on the ill-fated project that the next time they should focus on success instead.
For the next eight years that’s exactly what they did, assembling and analyzing massive databases from a variety of fields, including science, sports, business and the arts. One database contained all the research papers ever written, which enabled them to “rebuild the careers of every published scientist going back a century or more.” Another tracked the careers of hundreds of thousands of artists around the world from 1980 to 2016, with information on millions of auction sales and exhibitions “at more than 14,000 galleries and close to 8,000 museums.”
The result was a series of research papers (all accepted for publication, as it turned out) and, eventually, The Formula: The Universal Laws of Success, published last month by Little, Brown and Company. Barabási spoke with Scientific American about the science of success.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
What is your definition of success?
We struggled in the research to distinguish performance from success. And at the end, the working definition that was really instrumental in the science was that performance is what you do as an individual, and success is how the community perceives your performance and how, eventually, it acknowledges and rewards you for it. In other words, performance is about you, but your success is really about us.
Performance is what paintings you paint, what research papers you write, what products you design. And success is whether people actually buy your painting or cite your research paper or reward you for that product you designed by purchasing it or using it.
So talent and hard work alone, exceptional performance, are not sufficient for success?
Talent and hard work are what drive performance, and success is totally divorced from it. The reason I wrote The Formula is for people to understand that you can be very talented and work very hard but, in certain areas, that does not ultimately imply success. If you are in sports, where performance is accurately measurable, then, indeed, talent drives success. But most of us work in areas where performance either cannot be accurately measured or is not measured at all. And in those cases other measures drive success.
Such as the world of fine art, where your research found that an individual’s success depends on a specific network of galleries and museums.
Art is particularly fascinating for me because it is truly one of those areas where performance is impossible to measure, but there are very clear measures of success.
We cannot objectively look at a piece of art and decide, without knowing where this painting is displayed, such as The Museum of Modern Art, whether it’s a valuable work of art or a junkyard piece. So, fundamentally, the value in art is provided by the context in which it was born, by the artist and his or her reputation, preceding or following the creation of that artwork as well as whether the institutions accept it as a valued artwork.
At one point in the book you write, “The laws of success have governed our lives and careers as immutably as gravity through the centuries.” That seems like a pretty bold statement.
Laws are distilled from patterns, and what we are talking about here are patterns that very generally apply to every success phenomenon, so I feel very strongly that these can be elevated to the law level. That being said, people often ask, “Do these all apply to me? And if they don’t apply to me, are they laws?” And my answer is no, they don’t all apply to you simultaneously. It really depends on your circumstances which laws apply—the stage of your career, whether you work with teams or individually.
Why did it take a network scientist to discover the underlying mechanisms of success?
Several reasons: One of them is that in the moment when we acknowledge that success is about the community it becomes a big-data problem, where the relationships between the different players are really important. So knowing networks is key. Also, in the book I discuss a lot the role of chance and the role of the networks and other aspects, and teasing out these differences requires an understanding of the stochastic [randomly determined] components in the system. I am a network scientist but I was trained in statistical physics, meaning my core set of tools is understanding how order emerges in the middle of lots of random events.
Your book, and the emerging field of the science of success, would not be possible without big data.
That is absolutely right, partly because of the collective nature of success and also what the big data has shown is that the very ingrained concepts of success that we had in the past were really misguided, such as the relationship between age and creativity.
Right, your research refutes the idea, widely held in the sciences, that a person’s chances for success decline as they get older.
Yes, it changed the way I think about my career and what’s ahead of me, given that I just passed 50.
In your analysis of the scientific literature you found that productivity, not age, is the critical factor—that it’s never too late to succeed.
I hope readers will feel that way, because certainly this finding has totally changed the way I approach my work in the lab. Based on the previous data and all the evidence, I should really just write books now and not try to do any more research papers because, if we look at the data the traditional way, my chance of overcoming my earlier successful papers should be less than 1 percent. But our data showed that as long as I keep my productivity up, the biggest discovery I will make in my career could still be ahead of me.
How is your book different from the many other books about success?
There are very valuable books out there—by successful entrepreneurs, scientists, artists and athletes—who share their secrets of success. And there are other books where the authors take 10 or a hundred of these successful people and distill the patterns that are common among them. The problem I have with these approaches is that they are missing the control sample. For example, you may conclude from looking at 100 individuals that getting up at 6 o’clock and starting to work right away is the secret of success. But then you will find 10 million people who also get up at 6 o’clock and they don’t become successful. So what we tried to do is not only look at the successful individuals and the successful papers and the successful businesses, but look at everyone who is competing in the same field and give equal weight to those who failed and those who succeeded. And that allowed us to extract these patterns.
Do you consider yourself a success?
By certain measures, yes. And by other measures, I still have a ways to go. But I always approach it through performance.
But you know that performance is not enough.
That is correct, but the book very clearly states that there is no success without performance. The Formula is not the book to make you successful if you don’t have the performance behind you. It’s there to accelerate your success, if you have the performance.
THE FORMULA: The Universal Laws of Success
By Albert-László Barabási
The First Law
Performance drives success. But when performance can’t be measured, networks drive success.
The Second Law
Performance is bounded, but success is unbounded.
The Third Law
Previous success × fitness = future success.
The Fourth Law
Whereas team success requires diversity and balance, a single individual will receive credit for the group’s achievements.
The Fifth Law
With persistence, success can come at any time or age.