Book of the week
The Formula: The Universal Laws of Success
(Little, Brown, $29)
True success, “that most mysterious of forces,” arguably came to Albert Einstein by chance, said Reed Tucker in the New York Post. Late in Albert-Lászlo Barabási’s new book, the networks guru recounts how Einstein was a relative unknown when he arrived in America in 1921 and two reporters who met his ship in Manhattan to ask him about his theory of relativity were surprised to see him greeted by a crowd of 20,000. By the next day, the physicist and his theory were front-page news and on their way to lasting acclaim—even though the reporters simply hadn’t realized that the throngs had gathered to cheer a Jewish political activist Einstein was traveling with. It would be easy to attribute Einstein’s overnight fame to the fickleness of fate. But Barabási argues that a handful of laws govern whether a person is actually recognized and rewarded for his or her achievements.
The first rule is simple, said Mark Buchanan in Nature. In fields where differences in performance can’t be easily measured—such as art or writing—networks drive success. We heap credit on individuals who’ve already been identified by others as achievers, and this spread of enthusiasm explains why two people of virtually identical skills can achieve vastly different levels of success. The networking effects Barabási describes mimic cracks spreading in concrete—“unstable cascades” about which predictions can be made using statistical physics, one of the author’s specialties. But seeing the same patterns recur among networks of people is eye-opening. Sometimes, perception even drives achievement. In one San Francisco school district Barabási describes, teachers were falsely told that certain first- and second-graders had excelled on a standardized test. When those students were tested again months later, they actually did excel—probably because they had responded positively to the teachers’ belief in them.
Barabási’s rules also tell us a lot about gender discrimination and similar biases, said Peter Coy in Bloomberg Businessweek. The chapter on group dynamics tells us that a single person tends to get most of the credit for any team success and that women rarely win such recognition. In fact, one study found that female economists lower their chances of securing tenure each time they co-author a paper with men. Such revelations may seem discouraging, but Barabási says he hopes that a better understanding of network processes will help encourage people to overcome such systemic flaws. “Whatever your own inclination when it comes to getting ahead, it’s good to know how the game is played.”