The Formula: The Universal Laws of Success


Last updated 2020-06-24

This is a summary of Albert-László Barabási’s 2018 book, The Formula: The Universal Laws of Success. I generally steer clear of books with titles like this one, but Barabási is a well-regarded network scientist, so I thought he might have substantive ideas on what drives success. It turns out he does, and they are quite easy to summarize.

Generally, ‘success’ just means the achievement of a goal. But in this book, Barabási uses the word to mean something more specific: “the rewards we earn from the communities we belong to.” In particular, this type of success is distinct from performance, in that performance is about what you can do, whereas success is about how you are recognized for what you can do.

The book devotes one chapter to each of what Barabási calls the universal laws of success:

  1. Performance drives success, but when performance can’t be measured, networks drive success.
  2. Performance is bounded, but success is unbounded.
  3. Previous success x fitness = future success.
  4. While team success requires diversity and balance, a single individual will receive credit for the group’s achievements.
  5. With persistence success can come at any time.

Barabási emphasizes that these laws are not recommendations per se, but rather they are claims about a phenomenon. They are meant to help us reason about how social status flows through networks and accrues to individuals within them. That being said, the laws have clear implications for what a person should do if they are seeking success, so after each law I share what I think those implications are.

The universal laws of success

1. Performance drives success, but when performance can’t be measured, networks drive success.

In domains where performance is easy to measure, like in athletics or games, networks don’t count for much. If you can beat Magnus Carlsen at chess or beat Tiger Woods at golf, it doesn’t matter who you know; you’ll get plenty of recognition.

But in domains where performance is harder or even impossible to measure, like in the arts, in academics, and in most professions, performance only gets you so far. If you have ever seen a virtuosic street-performing musician and wondered why they weren’t world famous, it’s probably because music isn’t a game with strict rules and unambiguous scores. The harder it is to rank people directly by their skill or by the quality of their contributions, the more their differences in success will be caused by their network: who they know and how well they are liked.

Lessons

  • In domains where performance is easy to measure, focus on improving your performance.
  • In domains where performance is hard to measure, focus on providing something of value to the relevant community.

2. Performance is bounded, but success is unbounded.

Usain Bolt is only a few milliseconds faster than the second fastest sprinter in the world, but he is vastly more famous. Not only that, but Bolt is at most about 2x faster than me, and I’m just a random guy off the street. Mathematically, performance and success are different beasts: the former is about bell curves, while the latter is about long tails.

Lessons

  • Hitting a plateau in performance does not imply hitting a plateau in success.
  • Unless you have the potential to be the best of the best performers, don’t seek success in domains where performance is easy to measure.

3. Previous success x fitness = future success.

In network dynamics, an individual’s ‘fitness’ is like their stickiness—how easily they retain the attention and positive regard of others who encounter them. At a conference, your fitness is defined by how good an impression you make during smalltalk at a poster session. On the internet, your fitness is defined by the appeal of your website or your profile—how you describe yourself, the visual style you project, and your recent activity.

Of course, fitness doesn’t count for much in the short term if you don’t encounter many people. The other factor that matters in predicting future success is how much success you have already achieved. In a 1999 paper, Barabási and his colleague Réka Albert coined the term preferential attachment to describe how wealth or credit ‘attaches’ itself to people according to how much they already have, causing a rich-get-richer effect. When you observe an individual’s rise to fame in a network, it often starts slow because the compounding effects of their fitness aren’t obvious until after many rounds of multiplication.

Lessons

  • Be patient.
  • Increase your fitness.
  • Have as many encounters as possible, especially with influential nodes in your network.

4. While team success requires diversity and balance, a single individual will receive credit for the group’s achievements.

The members of a team have a good understanding of who contributed what, but this information is usually inaccessible to outside observers. Observers will therefore assign credit using heuristics—giving it to, say, the person who is most vocal, or the most senior, or whose outputs were most visible, or whose past experience is most consistent with this type of work. Imagine if I were to study under Barabási and co-author a paper with him. Even if I did most of the work, the scientific community would think of it as Barabási’s new paper, not mine, because this would be their first time hearing my name.

Lessons

  • Speak up.
  • Work on things that are visible.
  • Build a specific reputation for the thing you want to be recognized for.

5. With persistence success can come at any time.

Success often results from breakthrough innovations and creative achievements, so people often speculate on the causes of such achievements. In particular, it is assumed that creativity is strongly related to a person’s age, and that it is at its peak during the early stages of their career. If you believe this, you might think that if you’re past your prime, you might as well not even try.

Barabási’s research suggests a different model: age predicts productivity, and productivity predicts creative success. In other words, each project completed has a similar probability of being a breakout hit, but because people tend to complete more projects early in their careers, this is when they most commonly achieve success. This means that there’s no reason to be fatalistic about having missed your opportunity; the key is to keep producing.

Lessons

  • Keep producing good work.
  • Don’t second-guess yourself because of your age.

Core takeaways

To summarize the lessons from all of Barabási’s laws, the path to success is simple:

  • Patiently produce a large volume of work in public.
  • Build relationships and provide value to your community.
  • Craft your image so that when people encounter you, they want to keep you in their circle.

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