Understanding success — and why talent and ability are not always key

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“Performance is bounded, but success is unbounded. Usain Bolt for many years was the fastest man on earth, but when he wins the competition, he does so with a fraction of a second,” says author and network scientist Albert-László Barabási. “So I'm a very poor runner, and he's not not running 10 times faster than I do. So what is true for runners is true for any area where we can measure performance. But success is not bounded.” Photo of Usain Bolt running in the 2016 Rio Olympics. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Jonathan Bastian talks with Hungarian-born physicist and Professor of Network Science at Northeastern University Albert-László Barabási about his book, “The Formula: The Universal Laws of Success.” Using big data and historic case studies, Barabási shares the rules for getting ahead and the methods for achieving success without being the best. 

“Art, for me, is a beautiful example where performance is impossible to measure, particularly in contemporary art, and the value is really created by the network," says Barabási.  “One of the things I show in the book is that the value is created by how the artist engages with the institutional network — that is, where the art is exhibited for the first, second, and third time, and based on where [the art] is exhibited, what other institutions you will have access to.”

Why is it that some of us are successful whereas others with equal talent are not? Barabási says that, contrary to common belief, it’s not those of us who are the most skilled, smart, or talented who achieve success.

“People who applied to prominent universities like Harvard, whether they got admitted or not, in the long term, they made just as much money and they were just as successful as those people who actually graduated from Harvard,” he says. 

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So how do age and youth factor into whether we’re successful? Why do so many artists and scientists have their greatest breakthroughs in their 20s? Barabási says that data clearly indicates that creativity is “totally independent” of age — but that productivity is not. 

“Those scientists who keep up their productivity have the same chance later in their life to make their biggest discovery, the same chance as early in their life,” he says. Barabási explains that a young success story often is more appealing and gets great recognition.

“We love the young entrepreneur story. So we end up actually overemphasizing  and telling many stories about it,” he says. “But when you look at the wealth created in the United States in Silicon Valley and elsewhere, there is no age bias, per se. There are just as successful companies created by people in their 50s and 60s as those in their 20s — they're just not such a good story any longer.” 

“This myth that the society perpetuates that youth echoes creativity is not only wrong, but it's also hard,” says author and network scientist Albert-László Barabási. “Because we are discouraging the vast majority of the population from trying to be creative because they don't belong in the Creative Club. Well, they do, because creativity has no age.” Photo by Gabor de Fiala. Image: In “The Formula; The Universal Laws of Success” author Albert-László Barabási says “success isn't about you, it's about us or to be more precise, performance is about you and your success is about us.”




Andrea Brody