The Formula: A book review by Bob Morris

The Formula: The Universal Laws of Success
Albert László Barabási
Little, Brown and Company (2018)

Following the five laws doesn’t guarantee success but ignoring them usually guarantees failure

Albert László Barabási explains why people succeed or fail. He focuses on five “laws” and devotes a separate chapter to each.

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 [high potential]= 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.

These are among Barabási’s observations of greatest interest and value to me in the first two chapters:

o As he and his research associates put their heads together, “we were suddenly seeing a series of recurring patterns that drive success in most areas of human performance.

“Because the patterns that began to emerge were so universal, we started to call them the Laws of Success. Given that scientific laws are immutable, doing so probably seemed brash to outside researchers. But the more we explored and tested them, the more solid and general they appeared…These laws are what separate the best seller from the bargain bin and the billionaires from the bankrupt.” (Pages 11 and 15)

o Success is a collective measure, “capturing how people respond to our performance. In other words, if we want to measure our success or figure out how we will ultimately be rewarded, we can’t look at our performances or accomplishments in isolation. Instead, we need to study our community and examine its response to our contributions. It’s this clear distinction between success and performance that helped us in the lab to identify the universal patterns represented by each of the laws shared in this book.”

“Our new definition of success is foundational to the rest of the book. It tells us that success is a collective phenomenon rather than an individual one.” (25 and 26)

o Historically, Boston Latin students have performed better on the SAT test than their counterparts at most other schools, locally and nationally “because high achievers continue to excel no matter what education a school offers. The Boston Latin students have that superior collective SAT score at graduation because the entrance exam selected the top performers to begin with…In other words, Boston Latin doesn’t make your daughter a better student. It’s your daughter who makes Boston Latin into the elite school it is. (49)

o Moreover, if individual performance drives collective success, the single determinant “was derived from the best college a kid [begin italics] merely applied to [end italics], even if she didn’t get in [because] it’s performance and ambition — where she thinks she belongs — that determines your daughter’s success.” (50-51)

In Chapter 7, Barabási explains how quality defies social influence. He examines the results of experiments conducted by the MusicLab at Yahoo to answer this question: “How does popularity influence success?” About 14,000 young people (from grades 1-6) participated. The experiments were conducted at the Oak School, an elementary school in a lower-middle-class neighborhood in San Francisco.

Details of the experiments — including results — are best revealed within the narrative, in context, but there’s no need for a spoiler alert when I suggest that success can — as can failure —  become a self-fulfilling prophecy. At Oak Hill, teachers knew which of their students were identified as high potential so they encouraged brilliance. “The children responded by producing brilliance.”

According to Barabási, “Self-fulfilling prophecies suggest that, under the right circumstances, the weakest [whatever] can land at the top. But can a false belief in a person or a product’s value lead to lasting success? Or are we bound to notice, sooner or later, that the emperor has no clothes? Two years after the original experiment, the MusicLab went back to the drawing board, hoping to address this precise question.” Stray tuned.

No brief commentary such as mind could possibly do full justice to the value of the information, insights that Albert László Barabási provides in abundance. However, I hope I have at least indicated why I think so highly of his book. He and his research associates are to be commended on their determination to identify not only the universal laws of success but also to suggest the potential relevance of each to failure as well.

Having been a classroom teacher of private school and public college students for almost thirty years, I can personally attest to the significance of the self-fulfilling prophecy, for better or worse. As Henry Ford suggested long ago, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re probably right.”

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