Success can feel mystical and mysterious. But then again, if you’re ignorant of the basic mechanics of the universe, so could gravity and the whirling of celestial bodies in the sky. But then physics mapped out the forces that cause apples to fall and the sun to set. Magic turned into simple equations.
The same transformation is possible with success, says physicist Albert-László Barabási in a recent TED Ideas blog post. In it, the author and Northeastern University-based expert on network theory explains how his team has developed a dead simple formula for success.
Drumroll, please. Here it is: S = Qr.
The simple math behind success
What does it mean? Success, or S, is the product of r, the potential value of a given idea, and Q, a person’s ability to execute on that idea–i.e., their “Q-factor,” or combination of innate talent and skill, which makes them effective or not in their chosen field.
“So, if an individual with a low Q-factor comes across a great idea with a huge r value, the impact will still be mediocre, as the resulting product–or Qr–is diminished by the small Q-factor. Fantastic idea, poor execution. Think Apple’s first handheld Newton, with its inept handwriting recognition. The reverse also happens: A creative person with a high Q-factor can put out multiple weak or mediocre–or low r–products,” explains Barabási.
Occasionally, a great idea and exceptional skill collide. That’s when you get epic success.
What this means for strivers
All of which seems logical, but is it useful? How can this equation help strivers increase their chances of finding great success? In two ways, Barabási says.
First, the math proves that the more ideas you have–the more times you plug an r of whatever value into the equation–the greater your chances of success. But you’ve probably heard that before. We all know that tenacity is essential for success. (Even if some of us fail to realize this means you can be successful at any age–all that matters is that you continue producing the same quantities of ideas.)
But this equation also highlights another less often recognized but perhaps more essential truth about success. It’s one we don’t talk about as much because it’s not nearly as uplifting. In short, personal quality matters and, sorry, while you can labor to get marginally better in a given field, if you just don’t have what it takes, you just don’t have what it takes.
Don’t believe me? Math doesn’t lie. “Once my team and I figured out how to measure a scientist’s Q-factor, we learned it remained unchanged throughout her career,” says Barabási, before anticipating readers’ objections:
“The data was clear: We all start our careers with a given Q, high or low, and that Q-factor stays with us until retirement. Well, I had a hard time believing that I was as good a scientist when I wrote my first research paper at 22, the one with absolutely zero impact, as I am now. And you probably feel you weren’t anywhere near as good a teacher, writer, doctor, or salesperson in your 20s as you are now. However, we spent six months rechecking our findings, and we came to the same conclusion.”
That sounds pretty depressing, and in some ways it is, but you don’t get anywhere in life by ignoring truths just because they’re hard.
Self-awareness before confidence
There is an upside to accepting you are naturally lousy at some things and that, no matter how hard you try, you will never be good enough at them to generate massive success. Face that reality, and you avoid wasting your energy chasing fruitless dreams. Instead, you can pursue other opportunities you’re better suited for.
And no, this isn’t the loser’s consolation prize. Incredibly successful folks in many domains have spoken publicly about how a clear-eyed understanding of their strengths and weaknesses was essential for their success.
Jeff Bezos admitted that back in the day he wanted to be a physicist. “I thought I wanted to be a scientist when I went to Princeton,” he said. “Halfway through, I figured out I wasn’t smart enough to be a physicist.” Instead, he switched to business, founded Amazon, and became–and we can all agree this is no consolation prize–the world’s richest man.
This isn’t true just for those pursuing science or business success. Artists need similar clarity. Academy Award-winner Reese Witherspoon believes in being brutally honest with her kids about their talents, or lack thereof.
“I remember [my daughter] Ava crying in bed in third grade–she was on JV basketball and she was the only kid on the team who didn’t score. I said, ‘Aves, maybe you’re bad at basketball.’ She thought that was mean. I said, ‘Mean or true? ‘Cause, guess what? Your mom’s bad at basketball, too,'” she’s related.
Witherspoon, like Bezos, no doubt understands how important your Q-factor is for success. You either have it or you don’t. That means throwing your energies into a field where your ability just isn’t high enough is a recipe for misery (simply pursuing it for pleasure is totally valid but different). Follow Bezos’s example and switch to a path you’re more suited for and you can save yourself a lot of wasted energy and years.
That’s why super successful people like Bezos and Witherspoon are brutally cold-eyed in assessing their own abilities. Confidence and grit have their place, but only after you’ve mastered self-awareness.
Originally published on Inc.
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