The Formula: The Universal Laws of Success – Albert-László Barabási. A stack of hardcover copies.

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

The Formula: The Universal Laws of Success is a book by Albert-László Barabási about the key factors that decide whether someone becomes successful.

Book Review

Table of Contents

Albert-László Barabási

Albert-László Barabási lives in Boston, where he is the Professor of Network Science at Northeastern University. He is an ethnic Hungarian and was born in Transylvania, Romania. He graduated from Romania, studied for his masters in Budapest, Hungary, and completed his PhD at Boston University. Barabási is best known as a pioneer, in the research and development, of network science in physics.

The Formula, The Universal Laws of Success: Albert-László Barabási giving a talk in front of a microphone.
Photo: Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Ted Talk

I first discovered Albert Barabasi through his TED Talk about the relationship between success and age. Albert Barabasi is a renowned network physicist who decided to use a scientific approach to investigate success and human networks. His TED Talk presented several intriguing concepts, with references to bounded and unbounded concerning performance and success. It prompted me to read his book, The Formula, to further understand the ideas he was presenting. His text is surprisingly readable and enjoyable.

The Formula Book Reviews

Book reviews about The Formula didn’t seem to understand the book or focused on insignificant aspects and made points that differed from the actual text. What makes The Formula interesting is that it scientifically presents the factors that seem to contribute to a person’s success. Concerning success, Barabasi clearly distinguishes, in the book, between what a person has control over and what they don’t.

Barabasi investigates the difference between performance and success across several fields. He examines data concerning several famous successful people to show how they differentiate from their peers.

The Formula is stimulating as it challenges preconceived notions about hard work and success. It contains some informative anecdotes about famous people, and the story about Albert Einstein’s arrival in New York was intriguing. I was unfamiliar with some of the other examples used, though their stories were informative. Unfortunately, some already over-used sporting examples like Tiger Woods added minimal benefit.

The Formula: Publicity photo of Albert Barabasi
Photo: Goodreads

Barabasi groups the conclusions of his research into five main areas and refers to them in The Formula as rules.

The Rules

Performance drives success

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

//Performance usually drives success, but when performance can’t be measured, then networks drive success. But for environments where performance is easy to measure, such as sports, then performance drives success.

But in environments where performance is harder or even impossible to measure, like music and art or academics. The harder it is to rank people directly by their skill or by the quality of their work, the more their network will define the differences in their success.

Performance is bounded, but success is unbounded

Second Law: “Performance is bounded, but success is unbounded”

The communities we belong to bestow success through reward and recognition. However, individuals deliver performance derived from what they do.

In mathematical terms, performance is about bell curves, while success is about long tails.

Previous Success x Fitness = Future Success

Third Law: “Previous success x fitness = future success”

In complex network theory, the term fitness describes the evolution of a network. The fitness of a node determines how the links between nodes change over time. Fitter nodes attract more links, while lesser fit nodes will lose their links.

So in human networks, an individual’s ‘fitness’ is how they make a good impression and build a network of interested people and how they keep them.

Your fitness online will be determined by your website, YouTube channel, or social media platform. The aesthetics of your website and the quality and frequency of your content will determine your fitness.

Individual fitness is insufficient on its own without connecting with many other people.

How much success you have already achieved will predict future success. Success leads to more success.

A Single Individual will Receive the Credit

Fourth Law: “While team success requires diversity and balance, a single individual will receive the credit for the group’s achievement”

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

There are a complex series of attributes that make good teams. However, a well-known person, previously successful in that field, will get the credit for any success.

With Persistence, Success can come at any Time

Fifth Law: “With persistence, success can come at any time.”

We often associate success with creative achievements and breakthroughs, most notably at the early stages of a career. However, people achieve success at an early age because that is when they are the busiest. Their productivity is at its peak. So age is tied to productivity, and productivity leads to success.

The Formula: Albert Barabasi in a suit with Budapest, Hungary in the background.
Photo: Northeastern University


The Formula is not a typical self-help book on how to be successful. Instead, it presents the factors that are present when people are successful and reveals what you have control over and what you don’t. The book delivers conclusions likely to motivate you to question and redirect the focus of your effort. Simply working harder is not a guaranteed path to success. He also dismisses prejudices that success belongs only to the young, but neither does it come by resting on your laurels.

While some of the terms used in The Formula may seem technical initially, the concepts they explain are incredibly illuminating. A couple of examples provided make the entire book worth reading. One involves an experiment to try and guess the winner of a piano competition. The first group watched the video with audio, the second watched the video without audio, and the third listened only to audio. The group that picks the outcome is astonishing, and the implications are enormous. The other examines the most likely candidate to be successful at a job interview.

The Formula: The Universal Laws of Success. – Albert-László Barabási (Little, Brown 2018)

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