Book summary of ‘The formula: The five laws behind why people succeed’

I normally read books incredibly quickly, to the point where my husband questions whether I’ve read them properly if at all. I’ve always been a fast reader because I feel like there are so many books and so little time, right?

However, it took me a couple of months to read Professor Albert-Laszlo Barabasi’s book, The formula: The five laws behind why people succeed. Not because it’s a terrible book. Far from it. Rather it is filled to the brim with data. You see, Professor Barabasi is a physicist specialising in network science. Hence, why this book draws on huge amounts of algorithms, statistics and equations, interspersed with evidence from the fields of economics, psychology, sport and beyond. In other words, there is a lot to digest. And just like you wouldn’t necessarily hurry a lovely meal, the same could be said for this feast of data.

There are so many books out there about success – most of which seem to come from the writer’s own experience and perspective, rather than any wider evidence. And this is why Barabasi’s book is an essential for anyone wanting to dig deep into success, beyond those books with pearly-teethed, glossy-haired people telling you to “crush it”, “hustle” and “love yourself”.

Barabasi and his team of scientists spent years trawling through all sorts of data, along with setting up network systems and algorithms to examine different factors which might drive success. From this, five factors or ‘laws’ were identified:

  1. Performance drives success, but when performance can’t be measured, our networks drive success. At the heart of this law is the idea that while our performance plays some part in our success ultimately, when push comes to shove, success is determined by how others perceive our performance. And this is why relationships, or networks, are so important. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic refers to this as Social Capital in his book ‘Why do so many incompetent men become leaders’.
  2. Performance is bounded, but success is unbounded. According to the data, Barabasi and his team found that there were no limits to how successful someone could be and that success led to more success in a lot of cases. The advice given in the book is, when working in a space where performance is bounded (i.e. there are limits to what constitutes good and excellent performance), find small ways to stand out from the rest of the team. And if there are ‘superstars’ in your team or organisation, Barabasi suggests you co-operate and collaborate with them, rather than compete against them. You’re unlikely to succeed if you compete against a superstar.
  3. Future success is dictated by previous success multiplied by the fitness of your idea or product. Barabasi and team conducted several interesting experiments examining how products or ideas are deemed successful. As many psychologists will know, social influence played a big part as our judgement tends to be cued by the views of others in our social orbit. Following this, preferential attachment comes into play, in that we end up rating something positively because our peers have.
  4. While team success requires diversity and balance, a single individual will receive credit for the group’s achievements. On digging into the data, Barabasi found that the more a team had a clear leader, the more successful they were likely to be. This is interesting, bearing in mind the increasing use of self-managed teams in some organisations. Again, similar to law one, the team of scientists found that credit wasn’t based on actual performance, it was often based on perception. So, the more someone was perceived to have a positive impact on the team, even if they weren’t involved in a particular project, the more likely it was that they would get credit. And if you’re a woman then there’s a particularly sobering finding from the statistical data where women tend to come off worst when they collaborate in teams.
  5. With persistence success can come at any time. Barabasi and his team looked at a number of different settings but by far, one of the most interesting was the world of academia and publishing research. The team hypothesised that age played a crucial part in success, in that the more research you did and published, at an early age, the more likely you were to get success which then would lead to further success. The data showed that while productivity is an important part of the equation – success has no age limit. The key is to keep putting your work out into the world (or organisation), whatever field you work in. And your success is dependent on your ‘Q factor’, which is your ability to turn an idea into something tangible, whether that’s a product, a discovery or something else that others can benefit from.

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