(In his new book, The Formula: The Universal Laws of Success, Northeastern University professor of network science Albert-László Barabási offers lessons we can learn from men and women who’ve achieved success after 50 based on his research. The following is an excerpt from this book.)
When, at the age of 50, John Fenn joined the faculty at Yale, he was old by academic standards. He was 35 when he got his first academic appointment, at Princeton, where he started working with atomic and molecular beams, research that he continued to pursue at Yale. Though Fenn was hard-working and diligent, he was largely a low-impact scientist. His department chair must have felt some relief when Fenn turned 70 and they could force him to take mandatory retirement.
Yet Fenn had no interest in stopping. Three years earlier, at 67, he was already semi-retired at Yale, stripped of lab space and technicians, when he published a paper on a new technique he called “electrospray ionization.” He turned droplets into a high-speed beam, allowing him to measure the masses of large molecules and proteins quickly and accurately. He saw it as a breakthrough and he was right.
A Late-in-Life Nobel Prize
After idling at Yale, he relocated to Virginia Commonwealth University and opened a lab. What he did in these later years was revolutionary. Improving upon his initial idea, he offered scientists a robust way to measure ribosomes and viruses with previously unbelievable accuracy, transforming our understanding of how cells work. In 2002, in his mid-80s, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
Fenn’s story embodies a simple message: Your chance of success has little to do with your age. It’s shaped by your willingness to try repeatedly for a breakthrough. Realizing this was transformative for me — I started seeing Fenns everywhere.
There’s Ray Kroc, who joined the McDonald’s franchise at 53; Nelson Mandela, who emerged after 27 years in jail and became his country’s president at 76. There’s Julia Child, who was 50 when she hosted her first TV show.
Key to Success: The Q-factor
But these late-in-life successes had something else in common besides tenacity. Their pathways to success were guided by a hidden factor that unveiled itself throughout their careers. My team and I named it the Q-factor, and it helped us answer the question: Where do highly successful ideas and products come from?
Your ability to turn an idea into a discovery is equally important, and that varies dramatically from person to person. A person’s Q-factor translates the process of innovation into an equation. Each of us takes a random idea, with value r, and using our skill, we turn it into a discovery or “success” S, which captures its impact on the world. Multiply your Q-factor by the value of your next idea, r, and you get a formula to predict its success. Written as a formula, it is: S = Qr
In other words, the success of a product or a deal, or the impact of a discovery, will be the product of a creator’s Q-factor and the value of idea r.
Give Your Work Qualities a Chance to Shine
Once my team and I figured out how to measure a scientist’s Q-factor, we learned it remained unchanged throughout her career. That’s right. 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.
The key to long-term success from a creator’s perspective is straightforward: let the qualities that give you your Q-factor do their job by giving them a chance to deliver success over and over.
In other words, successful people engage in project after project after project. They don’t just count their winnings; they buy more lottery tickets. They keep producing.
Prime Example: J.K. Rowling
Take writer J.K. Rowling, who followed Harry Potter by creating a successful mystery series (under the name Robert Galbraith). Each time she publishes a new book, her new fans go back and read the older volumes as well. Each new book, then, breathes life into her career, keeping her whole body of work present and relevant.
A high Q-factor, combined with Fenn-like persistence, is what drives the engine for career-long success. People like Shakespeare, Austen, Edison, Curie and Einstein are not remembered for a single work that changed everything. They tower over their fields thanks to their exceptional Q-factors — and their willingness to test their luck repeatedly.
Stubborn creativity, combined with a John Fenn–like tenacity, not only gives our lives their essential meaning, it also provides the true secret to career-long success.
Stubborn Creativity + Tenacity = Career-Long Success
The Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai is one perfect, parting exemplar of that. “All I have produced before the age of 70 is not worth taking into account. At 73 I have learned a little about the real structure of nature,” he wrote at 75. What followed made my day. “When I am 80 I shall have made still more progress. At 90, I shall penetrate the mystery of things. At 100 I shall have reached a marvelous stage, and when I am 110, everything I do, whether it be a dot or a line, will be alive.”
Hokusai lived to be 89, and he created his most memorable works in the final decades of his life, including the iconic woodblock print The Great Wave off Kanagawa. The image is of an enormous white-capped wave that slowly unfurls over a half-drowned skiff, dwarfing Mount Fuji in the background. It’s an apt depiction of how success ebbs and flows over a lifetime, building sudden momentum and crashing over us, only to start all over again.
(Excerpted from the new book The Formula: The Universal Laws of Success by Albert-László Barabási. Reprinted with permission from Little, Brown, a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc. Copyright © 2018 by Albert-László Barabási.)
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