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The Formula- Book Review

1 May 2024
Dr. Moria Levy
book cover

"The Formula: The New Scientific Laws of Success," authored by Albert-László Barabási in 2018, may appear misleading initially. Its title, resembling numerous other books, could give the impression of yet another recipe book promising immediate success. However, this is not the case; Barabási, a scientist, presents a meticulously organized thesis in the book, drawing from extensive quantitative (big data) and qualitative studies (case studies). These studies span various domains of life, including sports, art, science, computing, and many others. Having previously read one of his works, "Linked: How Everything Is Connected to Everything Else and What It Means for Business, Science, and Everyday Life" (summary: >>), which I consider a cornerstone in the field of networks accessible to the general public, I anticipated an enriching reading experience. And indeed, it did not disappoint.


The book "The Formula" delves into the disparity between an individual's performance, regardless of its quality, and the extent of their success in life, particularly as perceived by their community. The differentiation between these two terms is crucial: performance pertains to ability or skill, while success encompasses outcomes such as financial rewards, recognition, and other forms of validation from the community to which one belongs.


One might assume a direct correlation between the two, yet experience teaches us that this is often not the case.


Furthermore, individuals who achieve superstar status often derive significantly more value from their success compared to others. While the difference in performance may be marginal, the gap in success can be exponential.


Barabási elucidates that five factors drive success:

  1. Service

  2. Influence networks

  3. Success history

  4. Collaborative efforts as a group

  5. Persistence


It's noteworthy to consider that:

  • Luck and external biases (such as your position among competitors) also play a role, but we'll exclude these random factors from the success equation for clarity.

  • Attending a prestigious school, while potentially beneficial, doesn't guarantee success; it merely reflects the experiences of those who attend.


The book concludes with a summary and an exploration of the renowned scientist Albert Einstein as a case study, offering intriguing and unexpected insights. However, to fully grasp these ideas, one must delve into the entire book...


Until then, here's a summary.


Service

Competence represents our ability to perform tasks within a specific field effectively. It embodies the inherent capacity to outperform others under identical circumstances. Competence is cultivated through knowledge and skill, which are honed into expertise when the need arises. Naturally, competence is a fundamental aspect that reflects an individual's performance. While one might assume that competence-driven performance is the sole determinant of success, this is only accurate in specific scenarios—such as sports—where performance can be precisely measured and compared, like the number of shots or assists. However, in many other domains of life—such as culinary arts, music, consulting, literature, teaching, and research—where subjective preferences or immeasurable qualities prevail, competence may contribute to visibility but cannot singularly define success.


It's essential to emphasize that competence is not only crucial but also indispensable; sustained incompetence inevitably leads to failure.


In summary, competence is a prerequisite for success but not a sufficient condition.


Recommendation:

Prioritize investing in competence; cultivate outstanding performance.


Influence networks

An influence network is a physical or virtual space characterized by a professional or social atmosphere where the community judges our performance. If the relevant influence network perceives our performance favorably, it boosts our success; conversely, if it remains indifferent or dismissive, it can hinder our progress.


This can manifest through newspaper articles, citations in research, discussions on social media, recommendations, decisions to display artwork in galleries, or various other forms.


In certain domains, network influencers seek to bolster the success of those already deemed successful; for instance, if an art collector purchases a painting for a substantial sum, it becomes imperative for them to maintain its high value. Therefore, they strive to sustain and even enhance the artist's recognition.


Recommendations:

  1. Invest in networking by actively engaging in networks relevant to your field.

  2. Establish connections with industry influencers—those who leverage their networks to support individuals and causes they value.

  3. Focus on self-presentation; seek ways to distinguish yourself in interviews and meetings. An unconventional response or a brief anecdote can sometimes provide a competitive edge that significantly impacts success. Since performance variations often follow a bell curve distribution, with many individuals clustered closely at the top, even minor details can yield substantial differences, especially at the upper echelon, where the impact can be exponential.

  4. Upon achieving success, differentiate yourself from others. This not only facilitates recognition by influencers but also creates barriers for competitors. Superstars, in particular, can exert a negative influence on the performance of others when closely associated.

  5. Conversely, to ensure optimal decision-making within the organization, independent written decision-making should be encouraged rather than relying solely on open voting. This approach mitigates the risk of decisions being unduly influenced by others' opinions.


Success history

The history parameter isn't surprising; many of us have firsthand experience.


In essence, success breeds more success. To elaborate, Barabási articulates: "Acquired knowledge fosters further knowledge; Developed skills lead to more skill; Proficiency fosters expertise. Each of these elements contributes to eventual success."


Barabási labels this phenomenon as "preferential attachment" and contends that early engagement is pivotal in the rapid ascent of superstars. He formalizes this concept: "Past success multiplied by competence equals future success."


He elucidates that when faced with numerous options deemed "good enough," we often relinquish individual judgment and defer to popularity factors shaped by past accomplishments and influential networks.


Barabási illustrates this assertion through various examples, including acclaimed authors encountering literary setbacks when attempting to conceal their identities behind unfamiliar pseudonyms.


This parameter naturally prompts inquiries about initial success and strategies to influence it systematically. It's worth noting that Barabási acknowledges exceptions like Google, which achieves success even without prior hype. He attributes such cases to the inherent superiority of their offerings.


Recommendations:

  1. Generate numerous opportunities. As initial success often stems from chance, increasing the quantity of opportunities enhances the likelihood of achieving that crucial initial success. This lays the foundation for building a track record of success, further amplifying future opportunities.

  2. Foster public endorsements of your performance by those who commend your abilities. Early support, especially from friends, is pivotal for success and holds more weight than later endorsements.

  3. Initially, collaborate with individuals perceived as "hubs" within your network—individuals already possessing a sizable supporter base. However, as discussed in subsequent chapters, it's crucial to eventually disengage from such partnerships to bolster your success and avoid remaining in their shadow.

  4. Maintain belief in yourself. Self-fulfilling prophecies and a steadfast belief in your potential contribute significantly to achieving success.


Collaborative efforts as a group

Barabási introduces a concept that holds considerable significance within group dynamics. Understanding all its facets is crucial:


Firstly, group dynamics significantly contribute to individual success. As elaborated further, collaborative endeavors yield more tremendous success than solo pursuits. Collective intelligence plays a pivotal role.


Successful group dynamics necessitate diversity and balance among its members. While some individuals may share overlapping expertise, serving as bridges between members, others bring complementary perspectives from more distant domains, enriching the group's diversity.


Central to group success is effective leadership—not uniformity among partners. The leader shoulders greater responsibility, workload, and authority and is tasked with rectifying errors, navigating challenges, and ensuring high-quality outcomes. The extent of the leader's influence directly correlates with the group's likelihood of success.


Team members complement the leader by offering expertise essential to the task.


When assembling a team, avoiding an excess of "exceptional" individuals is essential, as this can lead to conflicts in ego, agendas, and actual performance.


Ultimately, individual recognition for success typically falls upon one person, often not the expected candidate. Recognition, success, and rewards tend to gravitate towards those the community perceives as the most successful within the group (refer to "Success History"). Even in academic endeavors where authors' names hold significance, the public often disregards this order and attributes credit independently. Barabási provides examples of this phenomenon, including within meticulous selection processes such as Nobel Prize awards. Additionally, Barabási highlights instances of significant credit discrimination based on race or gender, underscoring the systemic biases prevalent, particularly against women.


Recommendations:

  1. Engage in collaborative group work.

  2. Select an appropriate leader for the team and empower them with responsibility and authority. Surround the leader with a diverse group of experts, balancing between close team members (strong ties) and more distant ones (weak ties).

  3. Prioritize face-to-face interactions. This form of communication significantly impacts success, both during formal and informal meetings, fostering meaningful connections.

  4. Initially, align yourself with a successful group to benefit from collective achievements and support. However, later on, venture out independently, at least temporarily, to establish your distinct reputation. Spending too much time in the shadow of another can detract from your recognition.

  5. Ensure that your involvement in group projects is evident, and find ways to link the project directly to your contributions.


Persistence

Let's begin with an exception: geniuses, a minority within the creative population, often achieve remarkable success at a young age. This phenomenon can be generalized to suggest that the more productive we are—the more research or work we produce—the greater our likelihood of success. Additionally, due to factors such as youthful energy or reduced fear of failure, statistically, we tend to observe more success among young individuals, particularly within the scientific community, during their initial two decades of activity.


However,

Creativity knows no age limit; perseverance can attain success at any stage of life. The determination to persist and strive for success repeatedly, despite setbacks, is critical for overall success.


Recommendations:

  1. Embrace failures as learning opportunities. Keep trying despite setbacks.

  2. Disregard myths that associate success solely with age. Persevere regardless.

  3. If one area doesn't succeed, persist in that field or explore other domains where your skills and potential shine. Eventually, perseverance will lead to opportunities for success. Over time, by aligning with the right field and idea, the combination of your abilities and innovative concepts will unlock success.

  4. Recognize that existing successes are transient and success diminishes over time. Therefore, it's essential to maintain perseverance within a specific direction and continually seek new ideas and products even as prior successes wane.


Summary

Success proves to be more intricate than anticipated. Though we cannot alter its inherent laws to render them fairer or more commendable, we can undoubtedly leverage our understanding to discern when mere performance suffices, and additional factors warrant investment. Familiarizing ourselves with and implementing these factors will facilitate the transition from performance to success.


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