The Formula: The Universal Laws of Success

Excerpts

The Red Baron and the Forgotten Ace

Fonck and his plane were never even scratched by enemy fire. He frequently came back from missions the sole survivor of his squadron, and doing so meant downing planes defensively, using calculation to ensure his escape. His tactics were far superior to von Richthofen’s shoot-from-above hailstorm assaults. Yet all we know about René Fonck is contained in a hard-to-find autobiography and a few mentions of him here and there. He’s largely been forgotten by time.

.

Take other examples: Claudette Colvin, an African-American teenager in Montgomery, Alabama, who refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger in 1955. Her gesture presaged Rosa Parks’s by nine months. Same action, same city, same time frame. Yet no one mentions Colvin when students are taught about the heroes of the U.S. civil rights movement.

The First Law: Performance drives success, but when performance can’t be measured, networks drive success

It wasn’t until I started looking at his application materials that it dawned on me what those colleges were asking for. Essays about unique life experiences. Recommendations from teachers. Interviews with college administrators. A wide range of extracurricular activities. A track record of excellence in one specialized area. Plus, top grades and SAT scores, and constant reminders that these measurable factors were secondary to the rest.

.

There was only one way to interpret her results: Success in tennis is determined by a single factor — strong athleticism.

.

Boston Latin doesn’t make your daughter a better student. It’s your daughter who makes Boston Latin into the elite school it is. The message is clear. The school doesn’t ultimately matter ; the student does.

.

the key factor determining income a decade after graduation was not the college they attended. The single determinant of long-term success was derived from the best college a kid merely applied to, even if she didn’t get in. Meaning that if she applied to Harvard, got rejected, and went to Northeastern, her success was on a par with that of Harvard graduates who matched her SATs and high school grades. In other words, it’s performance and ambition — where she thinks she belongs — that determine your daughter’s success.

.

So how do we explain Diaz’s and Basquiat’s divergent trajectories? They differed in one essential aspect: Diaz was a loner. Basquiat, on the other hand, was an unapologetic networker. This was evident even during their adolescent SAMO phase, when Diaz insisted that they keep their shared identity a secret. Basquiat? He outed the partnership to the Village Voice for one hundred dollars.

.

The art world is a wonderful illustration of the First Law of Success: Performance drives success, but when performance can’t be measured, networks drive success.

.

The dirty but open secret in the art world is that once you’ve made it, it’s in everyone’s interest to keep you “made.” If a collector pays a million dollars for a piece of art, it’s in her interest and the artist’s interest and the gallery’s interest that the work in question be worth at least that much moving forward.

.

Since we can’t measure skill in art, the question was, what would predict the rise of these 227 artists? There was one factor: a relentless and restless early search. The data showed that these artists avoided the comfortable and common route of exhibiting repeatedly at the same galleries. Instead, they cast a wide net, as the saying goes, reaching outward and showing at institutions of widely varying location and reputation. And whether by accident or intention, they touched some galleries that are stations on the path to the center of the art world. In other words, the secret to their artistic success hinged on their ambition and eagerness to shop around. Rather than remaining stubbornly loyal to a few exhibition spaces, they surveyed their options and took advantage of a wide range of opportunities.

.

Remember, performance needs to be empowered by opportunity.

The Second Law: Performance is bounded, but success is unbounded.

The data is clear. The gold medals attached to bottles in wine stores are based on junk science. I’m not implying that prizewinning wines are bad. To the contrary — they’re all excellent. And that’s precisely why winning a wine competition comes down largely to chance.

.

Prior to the experiment, both experts and novices felt strongly that the audio alone would offer the best chance at predicting the winner. This was, after all, a music competition. But Tsay found that the groups that relied on the sound only could select the winner from among the musicians just about 25 percent of the time. Given that there were only three choices, that’s worse than if you were guessing on a multiple-choice test ! Both the experts and novices relying on the sound disagreed with the jury, picking someone else for the top spot. Surprisingly, the group best able to pinpoint the winner consisted of those who watched the video with the sound off, making their choice among performers who were passionately executing music that couldn’t be heard. In that group, novices and experts alike guessed correctly about 50 percent of the time. In other words, those who couldn’t actually hear the music did twice as well as those who did.

.

Applied to our own lives, this suggests we should bring our genuine self to an interview. An unlikely answer or an interesting personal anecdote might just give you a leg up. Given how bounded performance is, if you can find small ways to stand out, it makes enormous sense to do so.

.

First, no one performing on the first day ever won the competition. There were only two performers on the second day and there was one who performed on the last day among the grand prizewinners. Half of the remaining eight winners all happened to perform on day five of the competition. Strange, isn’t it?

.

But it doesn’t. The device’s approval is typically determined by those who are asked to speak first. They’re the ones who get to frame the key questions. The later speakers are unable to raise new issues effectively ; the concerns of the first speakers have been posed and set the tone. In other words, where people sit in a meeting, and the order in which they speak, can impact whether a medical device is approved for public use.

.

The good news is that once you get that first win, the data shows you’ll win again and again. There’s a secret, mindlessly metastasizing aspect to reward.

.

Woods is what economists call a superstar, someone exceptionally rewarded for exceptional performance. Superstars exist because success is unbounded. By performing even a fraction better than your competitors, your reward can easily be hundreds, sometimes thousands of times greater.

.

This key distinction between performance and success is captured by our Second Law of Success: Performance is bounded, but success is unbounded.

.

Not really. It turns out that competing against a superstar has the opposite effect: it measurably lowers our performance.

The Third Law: Previous success × fitness = future success.

Arnout found was striking in its own right . Those who received his initial donation more than doubled their chances of attracting further funds .

.

The people who received a first, random Barnstar from Arnout became “awardable.” They were far more likely to receive a second or third one from somebody else.

.

Lee primed the game for success by collaborating with a “hub,” a person with a substantial following already.

.

Most important, the researchers never used the results of the IQ test. Rather, the kids on the lists provided to the teachers were chosen entirely at random. The Harvard Test was bogus. But what wasn’t bogus was this: The 20 percent of first and second graders who’d been labeled “gifted” did indeed excel spectacularly on the IQ test they took at the end of the school year.

.

The teachers expected brilliance from the selected kids, so they encouraged brilliance. The children responded by producing brilliance.

.

But the MusicLab’s most fascinating discovery emerges from one of the experiment’s more peculiar findings: in rare cases, exceptional fitness can defy social influence. Indeed, the control group’s favorite — a song called “She Said,” by Parker Theory — made a remarkable comeback.

.

You know that game where kids are asked to guess how many M & M’s are in a jar? The more people we query, the closer we get to the true number — but only if you don’t tell the kids what others guessed.

.

The Third Law forces us to refine The Formula: when a product has fitness and previous success, its long-term success is determined by fitness alone.

.

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

Success on Broadway, it turns out, requires a careful balance between convention and innovation,

.

Crucially, though, for a team to succeed, some of its members must overlap, bridging diversity with shared experiences and close-knit relationships. Multiplicity — of newcomers and incumbents, tried-and-true friends and distant acquaintances collaborating for the first time — is crucial for team success.

.

Crucially, though, for a team to succeed, some of its members must overlap, bridging diversity with shared experiences and close-knit relationships. Multiplicity — of newcomers and incumbents, tried-and-true friends and distant acquaintances collaborating for the first time — is crucial for team success.

.

Those rare, runaway successes all had something in common, regardless of their programming aims: The more they were dominated by a single leader, the more successful they were.

.

“No grand idea was ever born in a conference,” F. Scott Fitzgerald famously quipped.

.

A 2014 study that examined the “too-much-talent” effect in professional sports found that in soccer and basketball, talent benefited teams, but only up to a point. Unsurprisingly, access to better talent resulted in more wins. Yet, when composed of too many outstanding players, teams suffered.

.

Collective intelligence tests provide hard evidence that the ability of individual group members is not a key determinant of a team’s performance.

.

the research suggested that managers should encourage side chat and back-channel conversations during meetings. This helped build harmony between team members, helped people quickly clarify issues, and created space for creativity to flourish.

.

And here’s one more surprising finding: Instead of hosting an out-of-work happy hour to encourage team building, invest in longer lunchroom tables. Sitting next to someone unexpected halfway through the workday offers an opportunity to recognize common challenges and to engage fresh perspectives. Apparently sharing a beer with colleagues after work doesn’t have the same impact, since people remain glued to familiar cliques at the bar.

.

Each time we begin a new project, we start with a journal club — a reading group that surveys the current scientific literature to understand what is being done in a particular area. Each of us reads a batch of papers and summarizes key findings for the rest of the lab.

.

And yet, there was something unique about Battier: his team was far more likely to win when he was on the court. Battier studied other players’ weaknesses and used that knowledge to subtly overpower them.

.

The predictive accuracy of the algorithm led us to our next insight about teams: Credit for teamwork isn’t based on performance. Credit is based on perception.

.

Combining this insight with the findings of the previous chapter — which acknowledges the importance of diversity and balance in team settings — we arrive at the Fourth Law of Success: While team success requires diversity and balance, a single individual will receive credit for the group’s achievements.

.

That tendency — to focus on individual accomplishment over team achievement, to seek unique faces or heroes — is deeply ingrained in our language. We refer to major work as belonging to a single creator: Darwin’s theory of evolution, Freudian psychoanalysis, a Frank Gehry building design, a Julia Roberts movie, or a David Lynch TV series. We also hire, promote, and make tenure decisions based on an individual’s body of work, despite how rare solo work is in this day and age.

.

tell my students that working with a recognized name is the best way to build a reputation in science … initially. At some point, though, you need to break out on your own. This advice isn’t just gleaned from my experience as a scientist.

.

And when women coauthor exclusively with men, they see virtually no gains. In other words, female economists pay an enormous penalty for collaborating.

The Fifth Law: With persistence success can come at any time.

The graph showing the chance of publishing one’s highest-impact work and the graph showing the chance of publishing any paper mimicked each other to such a strong degree that we couldn’t tell one from the other.

.

late-career professionals tend to buy fewer lottery tickets, so they inevitably have fewer wins.

.

Innovation itself has no age limit as long as we continually buy our metaphorical tickets and get our work out into the world.

.

Fifth Law of Success, is simple: With persistence success can come at any time.

.

The Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai is one perfect, parting exemplar of all that. “All I have produced before the age of seventy is not worth taking into account. At seventy-three I have learned a little about the real structure of nature,” he wrote at seventy-five. What followed made my day. “When I am eighty I shall have made still more progress. At ninety, I shall penetrate the mystery of things. At one hundred I shall have reached a marvelous stage, and when I am one-hundred-ten, everything I do, whether it be a dot or a line, will be alive.”

Conclusion

Driving around town, the two men were greeted by people on the sidewalk with resounding enthusiasm. “They’re cheering us both,” said Chaplin. “You, because nobody understands you, and me, because everyone understands me.”