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A complexity expert reveals how social networks create recognition and acclaim

The Formula: The Universal Laws of Success

Albert-László Barabási
Little, Brown
316 pp.
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Want to master your professional and social networks to maximize recognition? Want to learn how to build productive teams that create lasting impact? In his new book, The Formula: The Universal Laws of Success, Albert-László Barabási translates almost a decade of scholarly research on the science of success into a lively and compelling narrative woven together with captivating stories and his own deeply personal experiences.

The book reveals the scientific underpinnings behind many informal “rules of thumb” used by successful people and provides scientific explanations for why our efforts to succeed often yield counterintuitive results. For instance, why are some ideas ignored in their own time but then catch like wildfire later? Why do two individuals with seemingly similar levels of skill and performance achieve widely different levels of notoriety?

In order to understand “success,” we must first define it. At its most basic, success is about achieving a specified goal. Typically, we also associate success with recognition from our peers, fame, and profit. In The Formula, Barabási shows us that achieving this sort of success relies inherently on the workings of the invisible professional and social networks that shape our world. He defines “success” as the intangible things, separate from performance, that bring about recognition.

Taking us on a wildly entertaining journey from the precision-measurement world of individual performance sports, such as running and tennis, to the intangible world of art and music, to team-based efforts, Barabási reveals how to extract five “laws” that govern the recognition we will receive. He begins by showing us that when performance cannot be quantified directly, it is the perceptions of others that matter most. And even when performance can be measured, for the highest achievers, just a small increase in performance can lead to an exponential increase in how we perceive their value and in the amount of recognition they receive. Performance is ultimately limited by our personal abilities, but recognition, which comes from the networks, is unbounded.

Even when performance can be precisely quantified, measurement biases can creep in. For instance, a judge of a gymnastics competition is unlikely to give perfect marks to the first competitor, placing athletes in the first performance slot at a disadvantage. That opening competitor is further penalized if the second-round performances are ordered from worst to best, as is often the case in Olympic sports. In a world where minuscule score differences between the ultra-elite can lead to extremely varying levels of success, it is important to be aware of such effects.

The Formula also shows us how to quantify the old adage that “success breeds success.” An initial kickstart in visibility, coupled with high performance and ability (which Barabási calls “fitness”), compounds. Although a kickstart to a performer of low intrinsic quality may initially lead to high visibility, given enough time that performer should ultimately fade into obscurity.

No success story is that of a single individual. Moreover, we collectively form the networks that create success, so the scientific study of success also reveals a lot about human nature. Although teamwork is typically at the core of any major success, we are quick to reward the credit to one lone individual. We like to create superstars to idolize and aspire to.

Society must also be ready to entertain a new idea for it to be adopted. We are excited about new things that balance comfort and discomfort, and similarity and innovation. Too little innovation is boring, and too much is incomprehensible. How to strike the right balance? One strategy presented is to build a team that includes “forbidden triads” like Miles Davis did in creating his timeless masterpiece, Kind of Blue. This means, for instance, bringing in the strong collaborators of your strong collaborators. Of course, as Barabási shows, dumb luck, grit, and perseverance all play a role in success too.

It is worth noting that “success” measured in terms of recognition is not synonymous with happiness. Arguably, success is about achieving goals that matter to us personally, and most of us do like to receive recognition from our peers, all of which can enhance our happiness.

The Formula is an important book for us all to read. It weaves together meticulously researched historical context with more than a decade of Barabási’s and other scholars’ “eureka moments” and research findings to extract scientific principles and actionable insights for achieving success. And it shows us how the numerous social and professional networks that are embedded in society shape the success stories of individuals and provides an intimate portrait of a great scientist and his own path to resounding success.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Computer Science and the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, University of California, Davis, Davis, CA 95616, USA.