The Formula: The Universal Laws of Success by Albert-László Barabási

4. How Much Is a Bottle of Wine Worth?

  • The Second Law: Performance is bounded, but success is unbounded.
  • Here we learn that experts have a hard time discriminating between top products, like wine, performers, and musicians. Performance is bounded. The fastest runner is seldom more than 1% faster than second place. An attractive quirk is just as likely to drive a hiring decision than any real difference in ability. The advice here is to look for small ways to stand out.
  • Many competitions are designed to be fair, but they aren’t. The people who go first are much less likely to win. Judges in competitions and interviewers get better as they experience more individuals. The advice is to see if you can go last. In meetings, however, opinions expressed first are more likely to drive decisions. The way to win is to compete a lot. Just keep showing up. Once you win, you will find that success will continue as it feeds on itself.

5. Super Stars and Power Laws

  • During his best years, Tiger Woods was better than everybody else, but not as much better at golf than his financial success would indicate. His performance was bounded, but his financial success was not. Performance quality usually follows a bell curve with no points far left or right. Power laws are the basis for success as they allow for outliers. The top physics professor might make five times the salary of the average, but his number of citations could be a thousand times as great or more. Here citations of one’s work is the metric for success rather than money.
  • Albert also deals with the impact of competing against superstars. The Tiger Woods Effect was coined when it was noticed that other top pros performed worse when Tiger was also playing. This was probably due to phycological intimidation. If you can remind yourself that performance is bounded you may be able to avoid intimidation. Healthy competition can improve performance, but competing against superstars is a different story. Cooperating with superstars is something else as it tends to boost one’s performance. This is notable when famous professors join a department at a new university as the production of other members of the department increases. Finally, don’t forget that scandal can overwhelm anyone’s success.

6. Exploding Kittens and Sock Puppets

  • The Third Law: Previous success x fitness = future success
  • Several examples of how success breeds success are illustrated. The term preferential attachment applies to the notion that initial success is likely to grow. In the bible, it’s known as the Mathew effect “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance.” (Matthew 25:29) Winning an award bestows confidence and is likely to lead to more awards. Preferential attachment underlies most of our choices from products we buy to causes we endorse.
  • A practice like writing your own reviews is called sockpuppeting and it’s more common than you might think. It doesn’t matter who offers initial support as long as someone does. Albert talks about a doctor who prescribed reading to a child every day as if he were giving the mom a bottle of pills. All doctors should do this as “children not accustomed to books will likely not read much as they get older. Exposed to fewer words, kids develop fewer strategies for decoding. As they advance through the grades, their literacy is on increasingly shaky footing.”

7. The Ear of the Beholder

  • Here we focus on the concept of fitness, which is not the same as quality but it seems to be correlated. Previous success x Fitness = Future Success Albert notes that both J. R. Rowling and Stephen King published books under other names that were not best sellers until word got out about who wrote them. In Rowling’s case, Harry Potter took well over a year to become a best seller one recommendation at a time.
  • Social influence is key when it comes to popularity. He cites an experiment where students rating songs were influenced after being given the ratings of peers. The same works for Amazon ratings as subsequent ratings tend to be influenced by the initial ratings that they can see. Popularity breeds popularity just as success breeds success. Without fitness, however, a product or performance will not make it to the top. The lesson here is if you want honest advice and opinions don’t ask for a show of hands. Ask for people to send emails so they can’t see the opinions of others.
  • Expectations are also important. One experiment involved teachers who were told which students did the best on a placement test. The twist here is that there was no test and that the so-called best kids were selected at random. Thanks to the teachers’ perceptions of the hidden abilities of these random students, they encouraged brilliance and those students responded by producing it. The lesson here is to have high realistic expectations of all students.
  • Albert suggests that you do what you can to do your own research and draw your own conclusions rather than being influenced by people who were influenced by early opinions. There is also a good story here about how Ben and Jerry combined fitness and preferential attachment to turn their high-quality local product into a national success.
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