The Formula: The Universal Laws of Success Book Review

Albert-Laszlo Barabasi is a network scientist. In this book, he uses data science to explain successful people. Measuring success depends on perspective. You may measure success by money. But your five-year-old measures success by your love. Are you a success if you die as a millionaire, alone? No. You don’t measure your own success. We do.

The Red Baron vs. The Other Guy

Performance determines success. But that performance depends on the audience. We do not recognize some of the best performers as a success. For example, we have all heard of the Red Baron. That Ace was so good that he painted his aircraft a bold red—daring anyone to shoot him down. A pilot with at least five dogfight victories is an Ace. And very few pilots were an Ace. The Red Baron had 80 dogfight victories. Nearly one hundred years after his death, he has hundreds of autobiographies, fights with Snoopy, and has a frozen pizza named after him. We believe that the Red Baron was the best fighter pilot of all time. But that’s wrong. He wasn’t even the best fighter pilot of World War I.

The Other Guy was a better performer

Rene Fonck, a Frenchman, had 142 dogfight victories during the First World War. That is a fantastic number—especially when 80 wins made the Red Baron a household name. Fonck was the best dogfighter. But we have not heard of him. We think of the Red Baron as a success while Rene Fonck remains an unknown. It is our perception versus reality. Success is about us.

Why is our perception wrong?

First, the Red Baron was outstanding. He performed to the outer limits. But what separated the two was that the Red Baron was better at using his network to make himself known. Once someone achieves success, it continues to snowball. Our perception is that the successful continue to be successful.

These are laws. Not just principles.

Barabasi explains that five “laws” exist for success. He uses the term “law” because his research revealed that these are not just characteristics of success. They are unchanging scientific laws just as constant as gravity.

First Law: Performance Drives Success. But when performance is immeasurable, networks drive success.

Tennis is all performance. Your network will not help you win a match. On the other end of the spectrum is art. Artists do not achieve success by performance alone. It is about networks. For example, a Campbell soup can is worth less than a dollar at the store. A Campbell soup can painted by Andy Warhol sold for more than $11 million in 1962. And you can’t even eat what is inside. Why is Warhol’s version worth so much? Because of the network that he leveraged. The Campbell soup can paintings are just a work of copyright infringement. Network in your niche.

Barabasi tells the story of his first science convention. He asked his scientist hero, who he had never met before, to lunch. He said no. But that hero was available for dinner. The rest was history. Barabasi’s network exploded. He achieved success by leveraging his network.

Andy Warhol Soup Cans Photo Hamilton Lindley Blog

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

There is little substantive difference at the top of any profession. For example, the difference between sprinters is in the hundredths of a second. The human body can only move so fast. But the rewards associated with being number one are immeasurable. The fastest person is Usain Bolt. He can run 28 miles per hour. Who is the second? Few people know. But he also runs 28 miles an hour.

Seeing is believing

A study of pianists reveals unbounded success. Participants were put into three groups. They were to determine who won a recorded piano competition by: (1) listening only; (2) listening and watching; and (3) watching only. Which of the three sets picked the winner? The people listening only, right? They purely heard the music. Wrong. It was the group that watched the performances with the sound off. Those who listened to the sound only did the worst. The winners did not just master the skill of playing the piano. They looked the part. All the pianists sounded similar.

hamilton lindley blog scientist meme

Third Law: Fitness times Previous Success = Future Success.  

Here, Barabasi uses quality and fitness interchangeably. This is one of the most frustrating laws. To be successful in the future, you need to be successful in the past.

We like what others like

People want things that other people like. Teenagers participated in a study involving music. First, users began the experiment by downloading a song they liked in the opening set. When a song is downloaded, it indicated that the music was liked by the listener. The number of downloads remained private. Later, the participants could vote on the songs they liked the most. Votes are seen by all the participants. So the most downloaded songs were also voted the most popular, right? Wrong. When users saw that a song was ranked by others as being good, they were more likely to rate that song as good too. People like what other people like, even if it is not as good.

This even happened to teachers and students. Teachers were told (falsely) that certain students excelled at testing when they did not. Because the teachers expected brilliance, they got it. Those students actually did score brilliantly on the next standardized testing.

The first performer does not win

Barabasi next identifies that we rarely judge the first person fairly because we want to be fair to the later performers. So we artificially deflate the results of the first performer. Don’t be the first person interviewed. You do not want to be the first salesman. And you do not want to be the first figure skater on the rink.

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

Doug Prasher should have won a Nobel Prize. But he drives a courtesy van for a living. Prasher developed a glowing jellyfish protein used today to fight many diseases. But academia did not believe him when Prasher first presented it. And Prasher lacked the persistence to keep presenting his rejected discovery. So he quit science. But he did send his jellyfish protein materials to two other scientists instead of destroying them. Those scientists used Prasher’s unnoticed scientific research to get the Nobel Prize. It was all Prasher’s work.

Perfect Group

Barabasi describes a perfect group. An ideal team has (1) people who are friends of friends; (2) friends; and (3) women. Diversity is important because we see the world through different lenses. We all have different perspectives on how to attack a problem. And having different relationships creates a culture of collaboration.

Balanced Group

Group balance was shown by chicken farmer (and Purdue biologist), William Muir. He studied the productivity of egg-laying chickens on his farm. He had two sets of chickens: (1) the individual superstars; and (2) the best group. The superchickens should be a super-productive flock, right? Wrong. Among the nine in the superchicken group, only three were left alive. The rest were literally pecked to death. Those that were still alive are the featherless things shown below.

Meanwhile, the best team of chickens increased production by 160%. The henpecked superchickens had nothing. This shows that a group requires balance, not a bunch of hotshots. A team will collapse without collaboration. So it is essential to create a fair playing field and keep the aggressive in check.

Picked to Death Chickens 
Hamilton Lindley Blog
The “superchickens” are on top. The best team is on the bottom.

Fifth Law: Success can come at any time as long as we are persistent.

Scientific circles believe that young scientists publish more breakthrough material. But Barabasi’s lab found that it is just because the older scientists are publishing fewer papers. Innovation appears to slow down because people stop trying, like Prasher above. If he could stomach being rejected a few more times, he would have won the Nobel Prize.

Dog Scientist Little More Persistence Hamilton Lindley Blog

Einstein Moment

The book ends with the story of Einstein. He was not initially liked by Americans because he appeared elitist and snobby while he was a relative unknown across the pond. But when he came to America, things changed. He was greeted with throngs of onlookers in New York City. People adored him as he paraded down Fifth Avenue–stunning the media. When the press finally met Einstein, they found him affable, unassuming, and eager to teach in plain English. He was nothing like they expected. And now everywhere Einstein went, he was a celebrity. This meets the elements of the laws of success.

But his debut in New York City was not really Einstein’s. He was simply on the boat with other famous people at the time promoting a new state of Israel. The press thought the people were there for Einstein, and that is how they reported it. But Einstein was prepared. The takeaway: be ready for your Einstein moment.

Hammer Time

This book is too focused on academia. More discussion on finding my network would be helpful. In academia, the network is other academics. But many occupations do not have that clear network. Overall, I give it four out of five hammers.

Four Hammers Hamilton Lindley


  1. Kendrick

    Isn’t it weird how we like things that others seem to like? It’s sad that authors sometimes write reviews on their own books pseudonymously. But sockpuppeting really works. What was more inspiring was the story that some teachers were falsely told that particular students were gifted after a standardized test. Then those students actually did score spectacularly at the end of the year. The teachers expected brilliance, so they encouraged it, and the students performed better as a response. That shows the power of positivity when it’s on both sides like that.

  2. Mark

    I never understood how networks drove success when performance is immeasurable. This shows the hypocrisy of the art world. Just because a piece of art was made by someone famous does not mean its actually a better piece of art than art by an anonymous author. It is unfair and robs humanity of actually good art. But I guess we shouldn’t bemoan the author for highlighting this. We need to use it to our own advantage. Thanks for sharing. I really like your use of memes.

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  4. HiteshKumar Vaghasiya

    What a wonderful book. The Formula distinguishes between performance and success and provides very useful insights for new companies or scientists on how to jumpstart their success. Intended for the lay reader rather than Dr. Barabasi’s colleagues in network theory, The Formula is well written and shows how the rules for success apply across disciplines and boundaries and how they can be managed to our benefit.

  5. Liz

    Sounds like an interesting read. I hadn’t heard of The Formula, but I’m intrigued by the premise of using others to define success. In your summary, it seems like Barabasi is saying that much of success is based on marketing and public perception…definitely interested in this book, but not sure I completely agree with its perspective.

    • Hey Liz, it is pretty interesting. He definitely defines success from a perception-is-reality perspective. It’s not who is the best. It’s who gets credit for being the best. Personally, I would define success as happiness.

        • Lisa Phelan

          This book was mentioned in an article I was reading. I was intrigued by the story of Al Diaz and Jean-Michel Basquiat, two artists who worked together for a time and were of comparable talent. Yet Basquiat became an artistic superstar while Diaz is obscure. Albert-Laszlo Barabasi provides many fascinating stories like this in The Formula. Barabasi has spearheaded efforts to learn why some people become more successful than others and there do appear to be certain rules for success.

    • Robert Lui

      A remarkable and empowering read, and very much unlike anything I’ve picked up before on the topic. As Barabasi says early on, it’s not a self-help book, but a science book in which the topic of study is a success.

  6. Tony

    Spot on with this great writeup. I didn’t realize that data scientists compiled this type of information. It’s interesting to learn similar elements of people who have experienced success. And it explains why the best aren’t always appreciated for it. This article (and book) deserves more love. I hope that you find success in blogging, Hamilton!

  7. John Castle

    It’s great to hear about all the things that bind success together, Hamilton Lindley. This was a good, fun read. I like how you vote on these using a number of hammers. Very engaging.

  8. Luke Harland

    This was a fantastic read, Hamilton Lindley. I am going to start using my network to drive success because I’m in a field where performance is not easily measured. Thanks, man.

    • Caitlin Sinclaire

      Luke, Albert-Laszlo Barabasi is a world-known scientist with immense contributions in network science. As a scientist specialized in computational genomics, I routinely perform network analyses and thus am quite familiar with his research, especially on biology and genomics.

  9. Roxana McMurray

    This formula for success sounds like a great way to concentrate on the ways to get better. Data science is just a fascinating field that I cannot get enough of.

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  11. Bruce Strine

    By showing the scientific laws propelling success, this book offers incredible insights into the basic ways of how people get ahead. Highly recommend this book!

  12. Brandon James

    I’ve never thought about success not being about me and my performance. I guess that I’m just self-centered. Barabasi taught me that it’s about us and how others perceive my performance.

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    I’ve never put it together before that there were universal laws of success that bound success together. This was an interesting read that I’ll have to buy online.

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