Home » The Real Relationship Between Your Age & Your Chance of Success: Albert-László Barabási (Transcript)

The Real Relationship Between Your Age & Your Chance of Success: Albert-László Barabási (Transcript)

And every time we are able to measure performance, we notice something very interesting; that is, performance is bounded. What it means is that there are no huge variations in human performance. It varies only in a narrow range, and we do need the chronometer to measure the differences.

This is not to say that we cannot see the good from the best ones, but the best ones are very hard to distinguish. And the problem with that is that most of us work in areas where we do not have a chronometer to gauge our performance.

All right, performance is bounded, there are no huge differences between us when it comes to our performance.


Well, let’s switch to a different topic, like books. One measure of success for writers is how many people read your work. And so when my previous book came out in 2009, I was in Europe talking with my editor, and I was interested: Who is the competition?

And I had some fabulous ones. That week Dan Brown came out with “The Lost Symbol,” and “The Last Song” also came out, Nicholas Sparks.

And when you just look at the list, you realize, you know, performance-wise, there’s hardly any difference between these books or mine. Right?

So maybe if Nicholas Sparks’s team works a little harder, he could easily be number one, because it’s almost by accident who ended up at the top.

So I said, let’s look at the numbers — I’m a data person, right? So let’s see what were the sales for Nicholas Sparks. And it turns out that that opening weekend, Nicholas Sparks sold more than 100,000 copies, which is an amazing number. You can actually get to the top of the “New York Times” best-seller list by selling 10,000 copies a week, so he tenfold overcame what he needed to be number one. Yet he wasn’t number one.

Why? Because there was Dan Brown, who sold 1.2 million copies that weekend.

And the reason I like this number is because it shows that, really, when it comes to success, it’s unbounded, that the best doesn’t only get slightly more than the second best but gets orders of magnitude more, because success is a collective measure. We give it to them, rather than we earn it through our performance.

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So one of things we realized is that performance, what we do, is bounded, but success, which is collective, is unbounded, which makes you wonder: How do you get these huge differences in success when you have such tiny differences in performance?

And recently, I published a book that I devoted to that very question. And they didn’t give me enough time to go over all of that. So I’m going to go back to the question of: All right, you have success; when should that appear?

So let’s go back to the party spoiler and ask ourselves: Why did Einstein make this ridiculous statement, that only before 30 you could actually be creative?

Well, because he looked around himself and he saw all these fabulous physicists that created quantum mechanics and modern physics, and they were all in their 20s and early 30s when they did so. And it’s not only him. It’s not only observational bias, because there’s actually a whole field of genius research that has documented the fact that, if we look at the people we admire from the past and then look at what age they made their biggest contribution, whether that’s music, whether that’s science, whether that’s engineering, most of them tend to do so in their 20s, 30s, early 40s at most.

But there’s a problem with this genius research. Well, first of all, it created the impression to us that creativity equals youth, which is painful, right?

And it also has an observational bias, because it only looks at geniuses and doesn’t look at ordinary scientists and doesn’t look at all of us and ask, is it really true that creativity vanishes as we age? So that’s exactly what we tried to do, and this is important for that to actually have references.

So let’s look at an ordinary scientist like myself, and let’s look at my career.

So what you see here is all the papers that I’ve published from my very first paper, in 1989; I was still in Romania when I did so, till kind of this year. And vertically, you see the impact of the paper, that is, how many citations, how many other papers have been written that cited that work.

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And when you look at that, you see that my career has roughly three different stages. I had the first 10 years where I had to work a lot and I don’t achieve much. No one seems to care about what I do, right? There’s hardly any impact.

That time, I was doing material science, and then I kind of discovered for myself networks and then started publishing in networks. And that led from one high-impact paper to the other one. And it really felt good. That was that stage of my career.

So the question is, what happens right now? And we don’t know, because there hasn’t been enough time passed yet to actually figure out how much impact those papers will get; it takes time to acquire.

Well, when you look at the data, it seems to me that Einstein, the genius research, is right, and I’m at that stage of my career.

So we said, OK, let’s figure out how does this really happen, first in science. And in order not to have the selection bias, to look only at geniuses, we ended up reconstructing the career of every single scientist from 1900 till today and finding for all scientists what was their personal best, whether they got the Nobel Prize or they never did, or no one knows what they did, even their personal best.

And that’s what you see in this slide. Each line is a career, and when you have a light blue dot on the top of that career, it says that was their personal best.

And the question is, when did they actually make their biggest discovery? To quantify that, we look at what’s the probability that you make your biggest discovery, let’s say, one, two, three or 10 years into your career? We’re not looking at real age. We’re looking at what we call “academic age.”

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