“The Formula” Explains the Hidden Patterns that Separate the Best Seller from the Flop.


The formulaMini book read.

Failure has become a badge, a rite of passage on our way to success. But generally-speaking nobody likes to fail, or even wants to think about it. We enter every project and new venture with a sense of adventure.

It's easy to talk about failure from the gold medal podium. Western culture doesn't look upon people who fail to succeed kindly. Unless you can draw a line from failing your way up the ladder to more money and bigger glory, we're just not interested.

Yet any study of success needs to start where things are not going so well. Albert-László Barabási, a self-professed tinkerer, started with disaster. A lifelong student of whore and how links form, Barabási loves to understand the math behind our social fabric.

Numbers provide a framework for figuring out the essence of how we're connected. Hence, why the title of his book, The Formula. The subtitle explains what he set out to break down the mechanism that create success, hence The Universal Laws of Success.

The title sounds gimmicky, but the focus is worthy—the science of networks and how success is the product of collective work. Barabási puts some meat behind the statement, Your success isn't about you and your performance. It's about us and how we perceive your performance.

We find the same principles for influence—it's about the influenced. There are hundreds of questions we'd love to answer, from success to achievement and reputation. 

“Is it our performance that pushes us the corporate ladder?”

“Do we get less or more creative during out lifetimes?

“Should we collaborate or compete with superstars?”

Three layers of value

When I read a book, I examine the ideas in three ways—as a learner, as an author, and as a practitioner. Here's my take on The Formula.

First as a learner—the book follows a logical progression. It starts with a personal introduction to connect us to the question, then the history of how he got to the structure. Barabási presents the scientific method he used to reverse engineer success based on the complex but consistently reproducible mechanisms that orchestrate positive outcomes. Before we can learn about something, we need to define what “it” is, what it means in our context. Hence the definition of success as “the rewards we earn from the communities we belong to.” Are you a collaborator? The recognition is important. Are we talking about a brand? Then visibility matters. Are you a business? Then revenue is critical. Do you hope to make a difference in any field? Then we're talking about impact. I love positive impact, it's in my Twitter bio for a reason. 

Then as an author—structurally, I look at how the information is laid out. Where does the book belong to as a topic? Does it include primary research or just secondary, or merely anecdotes?  Does the evidence balance out the stories? The simple logical progression from first to fifth law is easy to follow. Questions underscore each chapter and help us make important distinctions. For example, between success and achievement. Both rewarding, but with quite different contributions to the substance of our lives. Each chapter begins with a summary of the law, which you can use as a shorthand to review the material later. There are no diagrams. You won't miss them.

Third as a practitioner—here the most important question I ask is whether I would be able to incorporate the learning in mindset and practice. The book's design is to affect how we think about “success” and what we do with that information. It's like when you learn about the theory of flight, and understand the laws of aerodynamics. Or when you're learning how to drive and friction figures in it. For the boaters among us, it's about fluid dynamics. The Laws of Success are similar, says Barabási. We've got to use the insights that are appropriate to how we work. We've got to understand the forces that boost our performance, or we won't be able to repeat the outcomes.

Overall, the book is fascinating. After the introduction there's a story, then 10 more chapters, each law taking two to explain, except for the fifth law, which has only one chapter after which is the conclusion. Several of the notes are worth annotating as well.

Plus you'll learn how Einstein became the most quoted lovable genius.

My highlights

“How do networks—social and professional—affect our access to success?” In an age where it's become harder to be dis-connected than the other way around, this is a vital question to explore. Barabási says success is a collective measure, it's how people respond to our performance.

We do a lot of performing in social situations, online and offline. To figure out how we're doing, we need to study our community and other people's responses to our contributions. It's a collective effort. We put in the work, the others put in the recognition.

Of course, quality and competence need to be there. But if someone accomplishes incredible feats without anyone knowing… or appreciating, it ends up disappearing. They say the winners write history. A similar concept might apply to success.

This is something Enrico Fermi understood well. As one of the first physicists in Italy, he learned German and English so he could publish his research in the journals his community of peer scientists read. 

Any of us has a hard time seeing the impact we have on our networks of family, friends, colleagues, etc. We'd have not to be there to see the control. Just like in the movie, It's a Wonderful Life.

The exceptional rewards of athletes and celebrities are not linked to day-to-day performances. Instead, they reflect the cumulative visibility generated by their wins and losses. Performance is the starting point, along with ambition.  

In education, comparing two schools, one superior in every way from the teachers to the other students, and the other a regular school finds something interesting:

What the data tells us, is that the difference—despite what parents think, teachers suggest, and principals claim—is not because the school enhances their performance. It's because high achievers continue to excel no matter what education a school offers.

It's the superior collective SAT score of who shows up that makes the school superior, not the other way around. The student matters. Two Princeton economists studied the long-term factors of success of college graduates. They found that it derived from the best college a kid applied to, even if she didn't get in.

Confidence and self-belief need to match strong performance. It seems obvious. But what if performance is hard to measure, like in art or the less tangible professional services? The meaningful connections we build around them shape out perception and determine the market price.

You can go through each law and find examples of how it plays out in your life. It's useful to figure out how performance is bounded and success is unbounded to explain a lot about contemporary life.

How behavior spreads

At some point, performance hits an upper ceiling. There's only so much we can do to shave a few seconds off our time, or improving product features. Beyond that point, it's the order in which we speak or present information that wins the day.

Order determines who gets to “frame the key questions” at FDA approval meetings. Order also determines the higher probability of winning music competitions. If you plan to run in one, try to perform second on the last day. 

You get to set the tone in one situation, while in the second, you want to complete it. With a caveat, if you're a female performer, you'll rank two positions below males, no matter when you perform. This is social behavior at work in the form of gender bias. 

The reason why in music performance it's the last who reap the benefits is that the music is new to all at first. But by the last day, everyone's become familiar with it. Mystery solved. How many other instances in life have similar variables?

Creative pitches? New campaign ideas? Job interview? You'll need to balance enough novelty of insight with familiarity to bring people along. 

Sometimes the diversity necessary for positive reception is about relationships. Two people who share a common, strong tie. Say, a colleague and a cousin. This is why it's easier to work with someone you've worked with before, yet might not know too well. The colleague and relative might get along fabulously, because they're both connected to you, yet not to each other. 

Success can come at any time

With persistence, because creativity has no expiration date. Thank Heavens.

If you're willing to try repeatedly for a breakthrough, you will eventually have one. Actor Alan Rickman landed his first movie role at 46; Ray Kroc joined McDonald's at 53; Julia Child was 50 when she hosted her first TV show.

It's not the idea in itself that counts. It's “your ability to turn an idea into a discovery” that makes a difference. Barabási and team call this the “Q-factor.” Success is the product of a creator's Q-factor and the value of idea r. When Q and r are both high, they enhance each other.

Then they found something surprising, the Q-factor doesn't change over the course of our lives. However, there's a silver lining if you keep striking out. If your Q-facto is not resonating with your job, you might be in the wrong career.

Match your Q-factor with your vocation, and your chance of succeeding will improve.

I hope The Formula will give you better questions to succeed at whatever you're pursuing.