Laszlo Barabasi

How to quantify success

by Jason Kornwitz

A growing number of researchers have begun devel­oping cre­ative ways to mea­sure suc­cess from a quan­ti­ta­tive point of view, from ana­lyzing cita­tion pat­terns to number-​​crunching pres­i­den­tial elections.

On Monday, at a day­long con­fer­ence, more than two dozen econ­o­mists, physi­cists, math­e­mati­cians, and social sci­en­tists con­vened to dis­cuss the quan­ti­ta­tive laws and pat­terns gov­erning high achieve­ment. The inau­gural Sci­ence of Suc­cess Sym­posia was hosted by Harvard’s Insti­tute of Quan­ti­ta­tive Social Sci­ence and orga­nized by Northeastern’s Center for Com­plex Net­work Research, which cur­rently focuses on sys­tems biology and social networks.

“We’re trying to math­e­mat­i­cally describe and pre­dict what it means to have suc­cess and how to achieve it,” said net­work sci­en­tist Albert-​​​​László Barabási, Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor of Physics and director of the Center for Com­plex Net­work Research.

Suc­cess, he said, is a col­lec­tive phe­nom­enon. “In a way,” he explained, “you are suc­cessful because others around you believe you are.”

Barabási will con­tinue this dis­cus­sion as the fea­tured guest on the Col­lege of Science’s weekly Twitter chat on Wednesday at noon.

The speakers at Monday’s sym­po­sium ranged from experts in net­work sci­ence to jour­nalism. Two North­eastern researchers— Chaoming Song, a research assis­tant pro­fessor of physics, and Nicola Perra, a post-​​doctoral research asso­ciate in the Lab­o­ra­tory for the Mod­eling of Bio­log­ical and Socio-​​technical Sys­tems—pre­sented their work. Perra out­lined his frame­work for map­ping and ranking sci­en­tific pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion around the world and Song dis­cussed the ability to accu­rately assess the long-​​term impact of a sci­en­tific dis­covery based on cita­tion patterns.

Brian Uzzi, a pro­fessor of lead­er­ship at North­western University’s Kel­logg School of Man­age­ment, delved into the role of nov­elty in achieving suc­cess. He ana­lyzed more than 17 mil­lion papers in the Web of Sci­ence data­base to test the common claim that novel com­bi­na­tions of prior work inspire fresh thinking and inno­v­a­tive solu­tions to chal­lenging prob­lems. He found papers that inject nov­elty into oth­er­wise excep­tion­ally con­ven­tional com­bi­na­tions of prior work are twice as likely to be among the most highly cited.

“Nov­elty does lift impact but only when imbedded in high con­ven­tion­ality,” Uzzi explained. “Real inno­va­tion pushes along both fron­tiers simultaneously.”

The phe­nom­enon is not con­fined to the sci­en­tific field. Film­makers Joel and Ethan Coen injected nov­elty into their run-​​of-​​the-​​mill screen­play for Blood Simple, Uzzi said, by ran­domly rear­ranging scenes and then rewriting the script based on the unusual combinations.

“In the end,” he said, “they came up with some­thing incred­ible by adding nov­elty to convention.”

Duncan Watts, a prin­cipal researcher at Microsoft, explored the rela­tion­ship between suc­cess and social influ­ence in an arti­fi­cial music market.

In his oft-​​referenced 2006 study, Watts and a team of researchers at Columbia Uni­ver­sity asked some 14,000 sub­jects to down­load and then rank 48 songs by little-​​known indie bands. The researchers found that sub­jects who received feed­back on which songs were lis­tened to and liked the most by other par­tic­i­pants tended to favor those songs too. If a few early lis­teners liked a par­tic­ular song, it tended to suc­ceed; if they dis­liked a song, it tended to fail.

“Indi­vidual and col­lec­tive deci­sions are influ­enced by the obser­va­tions of the choices of others,” Watts explained. “The pop­ular songs become more pop­ular and the unpop­ular become more unpopular.”

“This does not mean suc­cess should not be rewarded,” he added, “but sug­gests that winner take all mar­kets are less mer­i­to­cratic than they seem.”

Josh Gos­field and Camille Sweeney played the role of con­fer­ence out­lier, taking a qual­i­ta­tive approach to elu­ci­dating the secrets to success.

For their book The Art of Doing: How Super­achievers Do What They Do and How They Do It So Well, Gos­field and Sweeney inter­viewed dozens of high achievers, from Emmy award-​​winning actor Alec Baldwin to Major League Base­ball Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra.

The most accom­plished people, they dis­cov­ered, share sev­eral traits sep­a­rating them from the rest. For example, of the super­achievers they inter­viewed for their book, all shared a ded­i­ca­tion to fol­lowing their dreams. “If you want to pursue your dream,” said Gos­field, “you shape life around your inspi­ra­tion. Not the other way around.

“Pur­suing a goal requires more time, effort, per­se­ver­ance, and dis­ap­point­ment than you can ever imagine,” he added.

Many of the super­achievers prac­ticed active lis­tening, which Gos­field defined as an “act that puts you in a recep­tive state to take in knowl­edge and learn.”

Take Erin Gruwell, the high school teacher who inspired the 2007 film Freedom Writers by encour­aging her low-​​performing stu­dents to pen journal entries detailing their struggles.

“Gruwell jet­ti­soned the tra­di­tional cur­riculum and became a stu­dent of her stu­dents,” Sweeney said. “They showed her their scars and bullet wounds,” Gos­field added. “They told her about their lives of gang related vio­lence and broken homes.”

In closing remarks, David Lazer, an asso­ciate pro­fessor of polit­ical sci­ence and com­puter and infor­ma­tion sci­ence at North­eastern, chal­lenged the symposium’s speakers to design sys­tems that empha­size quality. In the after­math of the Boston Marathon bomb­ings, Lazer and his research team devel­oped an appli­ca­tion for Android phones to help better under­stand how people use social net­works during times of crisis.

“We want to iden­tify quality rather than amplify the noise,” he told them.

Originally published in [email protected] on June 19, 2013.

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