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The Five Laws of Success According to Science

And a lesson in how not to lose the Nobel Prize


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Dhawal Sharma

3 years ago | 10 min read

We have all experienced moments in life when someone else walked away with an award that we deserved. Whether it’s getting overlooked for a gold star at school or a promotion at work, not receiving your due is an extremely distressing feeling.

But nothing you have experienced can probably compare to what Douglas Prasher had to endure. You see, he missed out on the ultimate prize.

The one that got away.

Individually, Prasher was primed for success. He had made a breakthrough discovery that would’ve completely changed his field. What he didn’t have however, was the support of the network he was embedded in.

Deprived of funding and any hope of advancement, he passed over his work to another group of researchers who years later stepped up the podium in Stockholm to receive the Nobel Prize.

This story of what could’ve been exemplifies the central theme of the book The Formula, written by network scientist Albert-László Barabási. Success, as the book explains, is not always directly proportional to performance, but to the perception of performance.

And this perception is driven by the hidden networks we are part of. Success, in other words, is a joint enterprise: it depends as much on others as it does on us.

Using this idea as a foundation, the book uncovers recurring patterns that underlie success. So powerful are these forces that they can be considered not too different from the laws that govern phenomena in the real world.

An understanding of these laws of success is therefore critical if we are to derive maximum value from our efforts.

Too often we commit ourselves wholeheartedly to a pursuit, only to find ourselves falling short without really knowing why. By giving us an inside peek into the mechanism of success, these five laws can give us the tools to script our own winning story.

The First Law of Success: Performance matters, but when it can’t be measured networks drive success

None of us exist in a vacuum. We derive our identities and proof of existence from the networks we are part of. A human disconnected from everyone else is virtually invisible.

This point has important implications for how successful we can be. Success, by definition is what the external world bestows upon us. This ‘external world’, however, is nothing more than the networks we are embedded in.

How these networks perceives our success is what matters in the end. In a way, success is a collective phenomenon.

This principle is especially true for areas where success can’t be measured objectively. The book provides the example of the art world where this law is most prominent.

Art is a commodity the value of which resides entirely in the perceptions of people. There is no practical utility of art and no set criteria to measure value. How then is value ascribed to an artwork? Simple. By a complex network of dealers, galleries and buyers.

Even in a field as hyper-rational as science, it is networks that determine who gets rewarded, as we’ve seen in the unfortunate case of Douglas Prasher.

While art is an extreme example of the First Law, it applies to many other fields. Anybody who’s ever worked a job knows that performance is rarely the only thing that gets rewarded at the workplace.

How you’re perceived by your bosses and co-workers is what matters more. Plain hard work, unfortunately, will only get you a pat on the back and carpal tunnel syndrome.

What you should do

Every network has hubs — powerful people who wield enormous influence over the network. Most of these people are looking for promising prospects and are more than willing to help.
So whatever your field is, find the people who wield influence and get noticed by them. Do remember that ultimately you will need to perform, but knowing how rewards are bestowed in your network will give you an unbeatable edge over others.

The Second Law: Performance is bounded but success is unbounded

In 2009 the book ranked second on the New York Times best seller list sold a massive 120,000 copies in one week. The book ranked a position above it was the sequel to the runaway hit The Da Vinci Code. The number of copies sold?

1.2 million.

You read that correct. The number one outsold the number two by a factor of 10. Surely the quality of the writing was not ten times better? What then explains such disparate difference in success?

This phenomenon is explained by the difference in shape of two well known curves: a normal distribution and a fat-tailed distribution. A normal distribution is shaped like a bell and maps most human attributes such as weight, height, eye color and indeed, performance.

In essence, there are only two important things to know about this curve: that most people are average and extreme performance is extremely unlikely.

Source: Dataworks.co.il

Source: Dataworks.co.il

Success on the other hand, resides on a fat-tailed curve. As you can see, the thicker end of this curve allows for more extreme events to happen.

Where the normal curve almost touches the horizontal axis, the fat tail hovers some distance above it. This simply means that human performance is bounded, while success is literally unbounded.

Most high performers crowd towards the right extreme of the normal distribution and there is often little to separate them in terms of ability. Success therefore, begins to depend more on other factors some of which are totally random.

Social influence is one such factor which ensures that early approval snowballs into a massive advantage for the chosen option. The reasons for this early approval might be random but over time this initial success compound on itself leaving the other competitors far behind.

This phenomenon of a few winners cornering most of the rewards is not limited to any one field. Whether it’s a song racing up the charts or a startup receiving enormous amounts of funding, the upside for the chosen few is almost unlimited.

What you should do

The second law of success provides us many insights into the science of success. Firstly, knowing that performance is bounded we can come to any competition undeterred by the presence of superstars.

Yes, their reputation does precede them but we can take them on, content in the knowledge that little separates us form them in terms of ability.

Secondly, randomness or luck plays a huge role in success. The only way to make this work in our favour is to play again and again to increase our odds of success.

Finally, success builds on success. Therefore we should not just rest easy after having put our work out in the world. We must ensure that we get initial endorsement from a small set of passionate supporters. This little seed of approval can set mighty forces in motion that can propel us to unthinkable heights.

The Third Law: Future Success = Previous success x Fitness

Barabási defines ‘fitness’ as the ability of a product or person to out-compete others. Fitness is largely a function of quality, but it is also defined by the ability to stand apart from the crowd.

The Third Law states that while past successes can give you a head start, long term success depends largely on fitness.

Most of us lack the ability or inclination to evaluate how we should allocate our money or attention, especially when faced with close enough options.

We therefore look towards others and base our decisions on what they are doing. This is how social influence compounds success. But while this strategy allow us to make quick decisions, it doesn’t always lead us to the right decisions.

The book underscores this point by citing research that proved that the number of ratings for a product on Amazon is not reflective of true quality. In other words, the fact that a lot of people bought a product only proves that a lot of people bought that product.

What you should do

The bottom line is that an initial boost might get your work before a large audience, thanks to social influence. But this effect fades over time and true fitness comes to the fore.

So before you use various tricks and hacks to kickstart your success, ensure that what you offer is of quality. Sooner or later, the market will correct and true gold will rise to the top.

If you are on the other side as a consumer or a decision maker, be prepared to go against the popular opinion if you care about quality. It is unnerving to take such a stance but it’s the only way to ensure you are picking the objectively best option.

The Fourth Law: A single individual will receive credit for the group’s achievements

When it comes to group success, multiple factors are at play.

The most important among them are team composition and the presence of a strong leader. All good teams are the right mix of diversity and shared experiences — they include newcomers, as well as old-timers who know each other well.

Such a structure not only ensures cohesiveness, but also avoids groupthink by allowing opposing views to coexist peacefully. In the hands of a good leader, such a team is well-primed for success.

However, when it’s time to assign credit for the success of a group, one person usually walks away with most of all the glory. There are just too many examples of a single person being assigned credit for a result that took the efforts of many other people to achieve.

Steve Jobs. Michael Jordan. Winston Churchill. These names are enshrined in history but the many others who played a crucial part in their success are all but forgotten.

This phenomenon shows how the perception of a wider network is what ultimately matters when it comes to assigning credit. When a person with a reputation is part of a team, you can be certain they will walk away with most of the glory.

This is not because someone deliberately intends it to be this way. It’s just that the network bestows honor on whoever already has a reputation for success.

What you should do

However important your contribution might be, you will never receive your due if you’re working in somebody’s shadow. Since outsiders don’t have a window into the inner workings of a team, they consider the known success as a proxy for the group. The only way to break out of this bind is to take the credit that is due to you.

For that, you must chart out your own separate path. Find an unoccupied niche and make it your own. It is only when you are free from the long shadow of the stars that can you really shine.

The Fifth Law: With persistence, success can come at any time

According to conventional wisdom your chances of success diminish as you grow older. This conclusion is not entirely without merit because in most fields success is actually inversely proportional to age.

The reason seems simple: maybe you just aren’t good enough anymore. With your energy, motivation and even willpower eroding over time, the slide in output is almost inevitable. Does this mean we cannot hope for success once we are over a certain age?

Not quite.

It is true that success seems to favor the youthful, but it’s not why you think. The real reason is not a decline in our powers, but our productivity. Or to put it differently: we just don’t take as many shots at success as we did before.

The book talks about how scientists continue to put out good quality papers as they age, but the frequency with which they do that decreases.

This means that even as they continue to do important work, their odds of making a breakthrough discovery reduces. Not because of the quality of their work, but simply because they take fewer shots at success.

When it comes to success, there are a lot of factors that are simply out of our control. The only way to ensure that we come ahead, is to take a lot of shots at goal. Or a Michael Jordan famously said:

I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.

What you should do

Don’t rest on your laurels and continue making attempts towards your chosen goal. Understand that you don’t necessarily have to chase the same goals as you did earlier.

What matters is your ability to continue playing. Pick a goal that allows you to do that. Collaborating with others is also a great way to stay in the game. The accumulated experience of a group can overcome many of the disadvantages that age brings. Roll the dice again and again, because as Woody Allen said:

Eighty percent of success is just showing up.
This article was originally published on medium.

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