Review of The Formula: The Universal Laws of Success

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

Little Brown, NY, NY, 2018
262 pp. Trade, $18.90
ISBN: 9780316505499

Reviewed by
Roger F. Malina
March 2019

Reviews and critiques by Sharath Chandra Ram, Isabel Meirelles, Wolf Rainer

Albert-Laszlo Barabási, in this new book, provides unusual and compelling evidence on the patterns that underlie common sense of ‘success’. He chooses to call these insights  “laws”, with formulas. I will question those descriptors later in the review. But as an astronomer, and observational scientist, I resonate deeply with the way he collects his data, analyses patterns and then develops tools to frame an understanding of how those patterns emerge.  Yes, if you want to both excel and succeed, read this book.

One caveat, from my background in astronomy, is that as a profession we invested a huge amount of time over the centuries looking at patterns of stars, moving stars, and later morphology of galaxies. Some of these patterns turned out to be irrelevant to understanding the underlying structures––constellations for instance, or the study of the moon and planets to explicate human behaviors. And during my own professional career we learned, thanks to Vera Rubin and many others, that dark matter, which does not emit light, was dominant in explaining the structure and evolution of galaxies. The patterns and morphologies that astronomers were obsessed with were relevant but not fundamental. Similarly, my colleagues, including Saul Perlmutter, found compelling evidence that the universe is expanding at an accelerated rate due to an unknown ‘dark energy’. Not a common-sense result, at least at the time I was getting my education, and it is still totally unexplained. Most of the patterns in the universe are due to forces that do not emit light, use of light only to study the patterns turned out to be misleading.

This background made me a skeptical reader of Barabási’s claim to have found the ‘formulas’ and “laws’ for individual human and group success. The self-help industry is littered with unsubstantiated claims. Be careful when searching on line for the laws of success! But for me Barabási reframes our thinking about all these questions and brings to bear his expertise in complex network science and data science to create ideas or guidelines on how to convert performance into success. Both terms he defines clearly, in fields as separate as jazz performers and Nobel prize winning biologists. And the book is peppered with fascinating vignettes, such as the mistaken identity incident that transformed Einstein from an excellent scientist to a successful world renowned one. But other exemplars of these laws include why an average basketball player can transform a team into a super team, and how a smart coach can spot what the average player can bring to group success.

Let me list Barabási’s five laws:

1. Performance drives success, but when performance can’t be measured, networks drive success.

2. Performance is bounded but success is unbounded.

3. Previous success x fitness = future success.

4. While team success requires diversity and balance, a single individual will receive credit for the group’s achievements.

5. With persistence success can come at any time.

First reaction as I read was “hmm nothing new here; sounds like common sense”.  But as I read, the more and more I became convinced that this book was reframing the way I think about the ArtSciLab (https://artscilab.atec.io/) at UT Dallas. Cassini Nazir and I co-direct this lab as part of a network of labs in ATEC School at UT Dallas. In this lab we have emerging professionals from the "arts" and "sciences" working together in a designed heterogeneous collaboration laboratory. The performance and success criteria for each of the different professions of the individuals involved could not be more different - from the unquantifiable performance criteria in some of the arts, to the citation driven metrics of performance in many of the sciences. Our difficulties in translating performance into success in these transdisciplinary practices has led me to joke that astronomy had been so easy. With its well-defined performance and success criteria that a whole community of practice shares, there is a perhaps a ‘formula’ for success in astronomy.

Alex Topete in the ArtSciLab is now leading our HERMES project to collect data on the structures and methods of inter and transdisciplinary research labs and to translate this into ‘apprenticeship’ training. We hope the HERMES approach will help us develop similar ‘common sense’ on how to help our colleagues both perform well and also succeed in their chosen hybrid professions that are often excluded from the silo structures of our institutions. Barabási’s previous books were already part of our apprenticeship reading, but this book is fundamental and will reshape our approaches.

Let me finish with a few reflections, not criticisms, of this excellent book.

First, I find the use of the words, ‘formula’ and ‘law’, problematic, perhaps because of the way these words are used popularly. Barabási’s use is very specific. They are the formalisms that can be used to predictably describe the patterns in the data that he and others have found. So far so good. But if there is any take home message that I have taken from the sciences of complexity, it is that we need many ideas of causality and be careful about our implicit biases––not only the A causes B implication of Barabási’s third law. Whether in understanding the emerging structures in the Universe or the health of ecologies, or human well-being, we know that emerging behaviors often arise from low level rules of interaction, as well as the implication of network morphologies, not necessarily from ‘laws’ of the systemic behavior. And in many systems (e.g. climate change) you can model the systems, extrapolate future behavior, and develop equations that describe well the data collected in the past, but future behavior maybe be disrupted by causalities that are of the kind A causes B, if C didn’t happen and D happened 100 years ago. Never mind the impact of sporadic events such as unusual solar cycles, asteroid impact or out of the ordinary volcanic eruptions. N. Katherine Hayles has usefully complexities the differences between prediction and retrodiction; Barabási, I think, with the use of the words ‘law’ and ‘formula’ may mislead some readers. The laws of success as explicated by Barabási are in a different epistemological framework than the Newtonian laws of gravity. This in my view complexifies how one can translate these laws into daily practice.

The other reflection concerns the sociology of human behavior in institutions. A book that influenced my thinking and practice is Randall Collins’ The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change. One of the take home messages of the book is that the history of successful ideas is often dominated by ‘office politics’ rather than the excellence of the ideas or individuals. Collins studies schools of philosophy over the millennia in China, Asia, Japan, the West and finds, like Barabási, patterns that seem to replicate, though in a less data driven quantifiable way than does Barabási. For instance, the common situation of personal disagreement between a PhD advisor and an excellent PhD student leads the student to leave rather than continue to collaborate; the student leads a new school of philosophy that is more successful than that of his mentor. Another example would be how universities are historically reticent to pursue professional misconduct cases that involve psychological and, or, sexual harassment.The latter in fact can be criminally prosecuted, but the standards of evidence and institutional cultures are such that universities rarely pursue in a timely manner. Barabási does discuss many examples of what I am calling ‘office politics’, but maybe there is a possible 6th law.

Certainly as part of the community of practice, including our ArtSciLab, that is trying to create research that bridges the arts and sciences, sometimes called STEM to STEAM, we face these issues. We are well aware how office politics has negatively influenced the success of some of our most brilliant colleagues. Sometimes the social structure of institutions is “incompatible” with the success of certain excellent ideas because the way incentives, such as promotion and tenure, function to reinforce ‘silo-ed’ thinking and non-collaborative work. As a result, our community of practice is still marked by intellectual and geographic migrants, “geniuses’ who have often been abandoned and forgotten. The innovation and creativity research community, including the science of team science area that Barabási develops, is fast moving as we seek to translate and combine the "sciences" with the "arts" into useful practices and other social outcomes.

Another thought. The 68-year-old that I am was of course encouraged by Barabási’s 5th Law: Success can come at any time. He analyses in depths the age at which celebrated figures did their outstanding work; yes, most do this before their 30s. But he complexifies this with examples and data of how on the tail of this distribution there are many examples of successful and exceptional achievements in later years. He illustrates this work with the way John Fenn carried out his ground-breaking work in his sixties and received the Nobel prize in his later 80s. He develops the idea of the “‘Q’factor”, the ability to translate ideas into discoveries and quantifies a number of common-sense ideas. But more importantly, he develops the idea of how to develop one’s ‘Q’ factor, through collaboration methodologies, a fundamental concept in the UT Dallas ArtSciLab. And his discussion ties in nicely with Edward Said’s ideals in his book On Late Style and the SOTA (Students Older than Average) being led by Linda Anderson in our ArtSciLab. Michael Punt introduced me to this line of argument as part of the COGNOVO program, on cognitive innovation, at the University of Plymouth. The idea that the brain and body have multiple 'modes of operations, and that these 'modes' can be altered, or their use modified by experience or by age or other factors. The popular press on toggling between "quick thinking' and "slow thinking', or "thing small" and "think big" ties into this in some way. And, yes, there are ways of training the various modes, including intuition for instance. Unfortunately, our school systems rarely train more than one mode that our brains and bodies use. Said's ideas help reshape the way we think about involving older professionals in innovation work; as David Peat once remarked, retired professionals are one of the worlds growing and under-utilised resources.

Said's full book is at https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/159782/on-late-style-by-edward-w-said/9780375726330/, and I note in passing that it feeds into my colleague Nina Czegledy's insistence that in transdisciplinary work we need to invent new mechanisms of inter-generational communication and collaboration. This hallmark of the community of Practice that uses the Leonardo SAST and OLATS organizations for part of their professional needs, as Nina discovered as she led our 50th anniversary 'village' birthday parties.

In conclusion, we will be adding Barabási’s new book to our transdisciplinary apprenticeship source material.

Disclaimer. I have met Barabási a few times during my career. As he explains before becoming a successful scientist, he tried to be a sculptor. This hybrid interest has led him to talk at a Leonardo art-science event in Prague. Later, I reached out to Barabási when I was recruited at UT Dallas to ask if he had recommendations for emerging professionals that I might help recruit. This led to the UTD hiring of historian Max Schich. Max Schich and Isabel Meirelles went on to lead the influential Arts, Humanities and Complex Network symposia at the network science conferences. When Max Schich, an art historian, arrived in Dallas, he published an article in Science which now has an Altmetrics score of nearly 500, and his YouTube video has 1.5 million downloads––yes, 1.5 million; certainly, a measure of success for an art historian! He may be made use of one of Barabási’s laws. For me, this anecdote exemplifies Barabási’s practice over the decades and illustrates well the laws and formulas Barabási now proposes in his book under review here: The Formula: The Universal Laws of Success, Little Brown, 2018. I apologize for referring frequently to how I found the ideas of Barabási’s book applicable to our ArtSciLab and would be interested in if other transdisciplinary researchers find the ideas applicable in their case.