People have a deep hunger to understand what contributes to success. Hundreds of researchers studied massive data sets pertaining to success in sports, business and innovation. And they noticed a series of recurring patterns in most areas of human performance.
This summary includes the “Laws of Success” and the scientific inquiries that support each law. For scientific purposes, success will be defined as “the rewards we earn from the communities we belong to.” Thus, they are external and collective.
The First Law – Performance drives success, but when performance can’t be measured, networks drive success.
In one study, economists compared students who went to Boston Latin, an elite Latin school, to those that didn’t. Graduates of the Latin school have the fourth-highest average SAT scores in Massachusetts, which suggests that enrollment in this school will lead you to a higher SAT score.
However, researchers showed that there were no differences between Boston Latin graduates and non-graduates. Data says that the difference in test scores is not because the school enhances the performance. It’s because high achievers continue to excel no matter what education a school offers. That means the prestigious school doesn’t necessarily make your child a better student – your student makes that school prestigious.
This is supported by another set of data that shows that the median annual income of Ivy League graduates is equal to the income of those that won entry to an Ivy League school but graduated from another school.
Not everything can be measured by performance, such as SAT scores or salary. If there aren’t objective metrics to use, networks shape the success. This is evident in the world of art. Artists derive prestige from their affiliation with specific galleries and museums. Galleries and museums build their reputation based on the perceived importance of the artists they represent and exhibit. Therefore, it’s a symbiotic relationship.
Success is essentially a feedback loop. Galleries make names for themselves by taking on big-name artists, and big-name artists earn their fame by showing their art at reputable galleries. Therefore, once you’ve made it, it’s in everyone’s best interest to keep your status high.
Most artist success can be predicted by the patterns of their first five exhibits. Elite artists continue to exhibit at high-prestige institutions. And, most of the time, local artists don’t. Data shows that 227 out of half a million artists who’d begun their careers at third-tier institutions ended them at the prestigious galleries. The rare successful artists cast a wide net and relentlessly pitched their art to various galleries. Rather than remaining loyal to a few spaces, they surveyed their options and took advantage of the many opportunities.
Networks are what determine anyone’s success. Performance needs to be empowered by opportunity.
The Second Law – Performance is bounded, but success is unbounded.
The Second Law explains the hidden factors that shape our choices. It tells us why experts are doomed to failure when they try to select the best wines or the most accomplished violinists. The law explains why Tiger Woods’s competitors play measurably worse when he’s on the green and why the last interviewee almost always gets the job.
Our performance follows something like a bell curve. There will never be an Olympic sprinter who can run faster than a Ferarri. We know that, after a certain point, convincingly outperforming our competitors isn’t possible.
Even though performance drives success, the problem is that the differences among top contenders are so tiny that they’re often nearly immeasurable. Given how bounded performance is, if you can find a small way to stand out, it makes sense to do so.
There’s also a flaw that researchers call “immediacy bias” – the later performers, those with the highest immediacy in our brains, come out ahead. In many ways, the boundedness of performance sets most competitions up for failure, forcing judges to choose among people who all nudge the upper limit of performance in their fields. It may be fairer to select the best competitors, acknowledge that we can’t really tell them apart, and give them all a prize.
Understanding the inherent randomness in every selection, we can better appreciate how success is often a numbers game. You can’t always control whether you’re the first or last on stage, but you can increase your odds if you keep showing up.
Although performance is bounded, success isn’t. A slightly better performance can lead to an outsized amount of success. The unbounded nature of success is based on power law distributions. They have slowly decaying tails, meaning that they allow for a few large outcomes. Power laws are the reason why the combined wealth of the top eight richest people in the world is more than that of the world’s bottom 50 percent. This is true for all measures of success – impact, visibility, audience, or adoration.
The Third Law – Previous Success x Fitness = Future Success
This law shows us how a subtle phenomenon, preferential attachment, governs all success, from a petition’s popularity to reading comprehension in children. When fitness and social influence work in tandem, success has no boundaries.
Up to 70% of Kickstarter projects fail. One scientist conducted an experiment and randomly donated to one hundred Kickstarter campaigns that had zero funding. He used another one hundred non-earners as a control group. Those who received his initial donation more than doubled their chances of attracting further funds, even though he chose them randomly. That shows that success breeds success, a phenomenon called preferential attachment. It’s the snowball effect of success.
This is true for reading comprehension too. Research shows that the least motivated readers in middle school read only 100,000 words a year, compared to the average middle schooler who reads roughly a million. Knowledge breeds knowledge, skill breeds skill, expertise breeds expertise. And each of these leads to success, which builds on itself.
We can use this strategy to generate initial momentum, first by encouraging those who’ve already praised our projects to do so publicly.
Fitness refers to a product’s inherent ability to out-compete similar products. If a product has unique, intrinsic qualities and social proof, its future success is nearly guaranteed.
The Fourth Law – While team success requires diversity and balance, a single individual will receive credit for the group’s achievements.
For a team to succeed, some of its members must overlap, bridging diversity with shared experiences and close-knit relationships. Multiplicity is crucial for team success. Of course, teammates must collaborate to bring a project to fruition, but the role of a leader is the most important.
Research shows that the degree to which leaders were engaged with their team played a key role in the team’s success. The more a project was dominated by a single leader, the more successful it was. Diversity creates the best mix for success, but for it to be effective, it needs a leader.
One study showed that in professional soccer and basketball teams, access to better talent resulted in more wins. Yet, when the teams had too many outstanding players, they suffered. Soccer and basketball are team sports so having too many all-star players hurts cooperation and performance.
When we handpick for talent, prioritising individual accomplishments over team achievement, we rarely get the results we hope for. In fact, this approach to teamwork is counterproductive – derailed by a desire for dominance, no one can focus on the task at hand.
Leaders are essential for team success. But too much leadership can be detrimental. The best teams are those whose members can discuss and listen to one another. Collective intelligence depends on team players who, working with the visionary, discuss and listen and allow diverse perspectives to rise to the surface.
Credit for teamwork isn’t based on performance; it is based on perception. Success is a collective phenomenon. Credit allocation is guided by the same rich-get-richer phenomenon we see in every other area of success. Preferential attachment also applies to credit.
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. Otherwise, your work will always be overshadowed by somebody else.
Data shows that it’s worse for women. When women coauthor exclusively with men, they’re accorded less than half the usual benefits of authorship. Men pay no price for collaborative work. From a tenure perspective, if you’re a female economist publishing with men, you might as well not publish at all.
When we look at the product of teamwork, we have no precise way of knowing who did what. so we assign credit to those with the most consistent track records or the ones we recognize, which can sometimes be glaringly wrong.
The Fifth Law – With persistence success can come at any time.
The Fifth Law explains how it’s possible to do Nobel-winning research after retirement and why it feels like some people are playing the success game with loaded dice. We’ll encounter the Q-factor, which allows us to reduce innovation to an equation. The Fifth Law tells us that while success melts like a snowflake, creativity has no expiration date.
Data says that scientists tend to publish their breakthrough work at the beginning of their careers. To be precise, it appeared that a scientist had roughly a 13% chance of publishing her highest impact work in the first three years of her career. Data also suggests that success is more likely to happen at an earlier age. One analysis of over two thousand scientists showed that the majority made their mark on history before the age of thirty-nine. Numbers are similar for artists and writers.
However, it seems that scientists publish far more papers at the beginning of their career. The chances of a scientist publishing their highest-impact work are the same as them publishing any paper. When they organized the data by sequence instead of the age of the scientist who authored it, each paper – whether it was the first, the second, or the last – had exactly the same chance of being the most important. Age didn’t seem to matter.
If creativity has no age, and each paper has the same chance of being a breakthrough, then it looks like productivity decreases with age. Scientists try more often at the beginning of their career, so they tend to experience more success. Innovation has no age limit as long as we continue to get our work out into the world.
Your chance of success has little to do with your age. It is shaped by your willingness to try repeatedly for a breakthrough.
New projects always start with an idea. But a good idea isn’t the only factor. Your ability to take that idea and turn it into something useful is equally, if not more, important. This ability is called the Q-factor – the ability to turn an idea into a discovery.
Therefore, success is measured by the value of an idea multiplied by your skill. Shockingly, it seems that a scientist’s Q-factor stays the same throughout her career. The same appears to be true for Twitter users – some are much more talented at engaging with their audiences than others, but there seemed to be no systematic growth or decay as users honed their communication skills.
Since Q-factors don’t increase with time, if you are repeatedly failing at breaking through, you may be pursuing the wrong vocation. If your Q-factor doesn’t resonate with your job, you must take a moment to decide if you’ve chosen the wrong career path.
Once you’ve found the perfect fit, there’s only one thing you need to do: be persistent. Don’t count on chance. Keep trying, and you will have a much better chance at succeeding. Successful people engage in project after project. Collaboration will also exploit your Q. Teamwork motivates people and success is a collective phenomenon.
You may also like to read:
- The Best Team Wins by Adrian Gostick & Chester Elton
- Moneyball by Michael Lewis
- Mindset by Carol Dweck
- Topgrading by Bradford Smart
- Happy Hour is 9 to 5 by Alexander Kjerulf
- The Sales Acceleration Formula by Mark Roberge
- Grit by Angela Duckworth
- Making Ideas Happen by Scott Belsky
- The Progress Principle by Teresa Amabile
- The Motivation Myth by Jonathan Manske & Mattison Grey