A few years ago, Barabási, a renowned authority on complex networks and a fellow of the American Physical Society, experienced the same frustration as many Chinese parents.
Barabási’s son had high GPAs in all courses, was a member of the school newspaper and swim team, and was outstanding in many ways. Surely, top-tier schools would be fighting over him, right?
Unfortunately, reality hit this father hard. His son received a series of rejection letters from Ivy League schools, and the poor father was so demoralized that he couldn’t even bring himself to ask what was in the letters that had just arrived.
Both Barabási and his wife had received education in Europe (in Sweden and Romania, respectively), and they were like Chinese parents in that their only measure of success during their student days was “grades.” As long as they performed well in school, they believed they would be successful.
But when Barabási reviewed his son’s application materials, his heart sank. Why did top-tier schools have so many admission requirements? Essays that reflected unique life experiences, letters of recommendation from teachers, interviews with school administrators, extracurricular activities, talents… of course, GPA and SAT scores were also required, but the school repeatedly emphasized that these quantifiable factors were secondary to the other materials.
Despite working at several important universities in the United States for 20 years, Barabási was still greatly surprised: why was something as important as university admissions so vague, subjective, and unpredictable?
The failure of his son’s university application prompted the “hardcore scientist” Barabási to create a new discipline, the Science of Success, and to publish several papers in top journals such as Science and Nature, specifically researching:
How can success be achieved in something as subjective as applying to Ivy League schools?
Later, he wrote the research results into a book called The Formula – “Barabási’s Success Law.” Below, let’s take a look at what is different about the “American Ivy League Application Success Law” that was researched using scientific methods.
“Unfair and opaque” admissions standards in elite US universities: Can they really predict your success?
If you want to know “how to succeed,” the “unfair and opaque” admissions standards in elite US universities are actually a great subject of study. Because from the results, the admissions standards of elite US universities are effective and not, as some conspiracy theories suggest, a hidden rule set in the past to discriminate against Jews or now to discriminate against Chinese. The students admitted are indeed the most likely to succeed in the future.
For example, two economists from Princeton found through research that, ten years after graduation, the median annual salary for Ivy League graduates is around $70,000, which is twice that of non-Ivy League graduates.
You may ask: do Ivy League graduates earn more because of the reputation of their schools?
Scientific data shows that this is not the case. Because the students who were once admitted to Ivy League schools but rejected the offer for various reasons and went to non-elite universities also have the same high annual salary as Ivy League graduates! That is to say, if a student meets Harvard’s admissions criteria but later decides to go to Northeastern University, he or she still has the earning power of a Harvard graduate.
So, what are the “future successful” traits hidden in the admissions criteria of Harvard and other elite universities? Apart from standardized test scores, what factors can make you successful?
To answer this question, it is necessary to first clarify what “success” is.
Success does not equal ability. From the perspective of complex network scientists, Barabasi provided a definition: success is not about having strong ability, but about others perceiving that you have strong ability. Success belongs to a collective measurement, a reaction of people to our performance.
Under this definition, we can solve our frequent question: why are talented people not appreciated? Isn’t it said that gold will shine? No, gold will shine, that is ability, but if it is not recognized by the external network, it is just an ordinary metal.
The most concerned issue for parents, “applying to elite US universities” is a typical situation where their child’s ability is recognized externally. In this context, successful children are undoubtedly more likely to succeed in the future.
Barabasi analyzed similar situations and proposed five “rules for success.” In the following text, we will explain in detail three of these rules that are more operational for parents.
Learn these 3 actionable rules to help children move from success to success
Success requires building a “social network”
We can use two sports, tennis and soccer, as examples. In tennis, success depends on one factor only – the athlete’s own strong abilities. Tennis is very similar to the school systems in China or Romania, where the only factor determining ranking is exam scores.
However, in team sports like soccer, even in the losing team, outstanding athletes may have scored goals, but were unable to win the game in the end, or their teammates failed to create opportunities for them to score, resulting in few goals. If he is a star player, in a first-class team, it is also difficult for us to judge whether the victory was solely due to his own efforts or the result of the collective struggle of the whole team.
Standardized tests are like tennis, where test-taking abilities determine everything. But performance in work after college is more like the complex cooperation in soccer.
In this case, if we want to judge the future successful people in the real world through standardized test scores, it is as inaccurate and insufficient as using the standards of tennis players to find the stars of tomorrow’s soccer. From the perspective of network science, social and professional networks are the key factors determining everyone’s success. The “network” is full of opportunities, and ability performance depends on the activation of opportunities.
To achieve success, we must consider how our work affects others, find the hub nodes that can accelerate our network traffic, and approach them. No matter what field, subject, or industry you are engaged in, if you want to succeed, you must master the “network”.
Therefore, we can understand why American universities often test “leadership,” a mysterious indicator. The purpose is not to train student cadres, but because if a student can run a club well in high school, it means that he or she can create a network, occupy a hub node in this network, and connect this network with other networks, thus leading to success.
In recent years, stories about “Indian Americans crushing Chinese Americans” have been circulating frequently. The number of Indians and Chinese people engaged in computer-related industries is similar, but Indian-founded Silicon Valley companies account for almost half of the total number of Silicon Valley companies. Among Chinese people, there is a saying that “Indians are bosses, and Chinese are intellectual workers.” Chinese people often complain that the technical level of Indian and Chinese employees is similar, but Indians are better at communication and grouping, as well as self-expression, so they rise much faster.
In fact, applying Babar Basir’s first rule of success, Indians are better at building and connecting networks, or occupying hub nodes in networks.
Chinese people often give foreigners the impression that they are particularly down-to-earth, hardworking, and focused on their own work. But this also means that Chinese people are relatively willing to do their own things well and will limit themselves to fixed nodes in the network.
Therefore, as Babar Basir warns, ability is of course necessary, but it must be noticed and appreciated by those around you. Striving for recognition in the “social network” is unavoidable.
Standardized Scores Don’t Determine Success: Scale Effect Is the Key
According to an article, standardized scores are not an appropriate measure for selecting top performers as many students achieve the same scores. In the case of the college entrance examination, a one-point difference can determine whether a student will be admitted to top universities such as Tsinghua and Peking University. However, there may not be a significant difference in ability between a student who scores one point higher and another who scores one point lower.
Using athletes as an example, golf is an industry where success is almost entirely dependent on performance, but data shows that in 2013, Tiger Woods, who won the best player award, was only third in average putting and thirtieth in driving distance. The reason he won was that he performed better in several tournaments, but he was only slightly better than other athletes.
However, Woods’ level of success is much higher. In 2009, he became the first athlete to earn over $1 billion in career earnings.
So why can a person with exceptional but limited ability achieve unlimited success? Barabasi provides an explanation:
To become a superstar in the economic sense, your performance must generate a scale effect. Superior returns come from talents that can be disseminated easily and inexpensively. Whether the audience or book buyers number ten or a thousand, the actor or author must put in the same effort.
Woods’ success in golf generated a scale effect through commercial advertising, allowing many people who do not play golf to know about him and contribute to his commercial success by purchasing products he endorses. Success in academia also has a scale effect, with the standard being scientific influence, measured by citation frequency. For books that can be printed in large quantities, there may be a vast difference in sales between the first and second places.
What kind of ability can generate a scale effect? Writing ability, speaking ability, and the ability to create complete works.
Through this form, a person’s influence can transcend time and space, achieving one-to-many dissemination and continuous expansion. However, exam-taking ability cannot generate a scale effect.
Universities that are more focused on humanities, business, and law, such as Harvard, attach great importance to students’ speaking skills.
Therefore, writing and speaking abilities may be more beneficial to children’s future success than problem-solving abilities, which may appear to be more practical and hardcore.
Since we have already realized that standardized scores cannot have such a strong differentiating effect and do not necessarily lead to success, students should avoid investing too much in standardized scores and instead focus on developing personal traits and the ability to scale up personal influence, which may open up the road to future success.
Lifetime “ability to achieve” is the most important
Many successes come from a new idea, but the ability to turn an idea into reality, the “ability to achieve,” varies greatly among individuals. If we use the value of any idea as R and the ability to achieve as Q, then we get the formula for predicting success:
The degree of success of an innovation S
equals the “ability to achieve” Q multiplied by the “idea value” R.
According to intuition, our “ability to achieve” should improve continuously as our career progresses, and we should become better and better at transforming our ideas into high-impact output, right?
What is shocking is that according to Babara M. Barzelay’s discovery, the “ability to achieve” remains constant throughout one’s life. He found a way to measure the “ability to achieve” of scientists and discovered that it does not change throughout their entire careers.
Even when he asked a successful businessman if he had gradually gained the ability to turn stones into gold and avoid bad deals, the answer was “definitely not.” His career also recorded a few beautiful achievements and many failures. The resume of one of today’s most successful entrepreneurs, Steve Jobs, is also full of failures. They cannot transform mediocre ideas into success and can only try new ideas again and again.
Since the “ability to achieve” is relatively stable throughout one’s life, schools need to understand the “ability to achieve” of applicants to ensure that the admitted students can be more successful in the future.
This is why elite American universities attach great importance to extracurricular activities. The scientific or social projects that these children do may be too childish for adults. Due to the limited knowledge reserves of children, they are unlikely to make any major contributions to society or make real scientific progress. So why can’t students use this precious time to focus on learning the wisdom of their predecessors?
No, if one has a lot of knowledge but weak “ability to achieve,” they will not achieve great things in the future.
At the same time, the popular PBL project-based learning, in addition to helping children better master knowledge, can also train students to transform their ideas into discoveries. The same knowledge points can be covered in a traditional classroom in one class, but PBL may take several weeks. However, the results obtained are one is memory of knowledge, and the other is the ability to “achieve,” which is also the value of PBL.
Going back to the source to increase the chances of a child’s future success
Babara M. Barzelay has two other laws of success, which are not discussed here due to space limitations.
“Parents love their children and plan for their long-term future.” Parents hope that their children can go to a good university, not just to pass the admission process, but to achieve career success in the future.
However, if one does not recognize the value of American university admission standards and regards admission standards as a program that needs to be hacked with various techniques, then they will naturally speculate and engage in various short-term projects or cultivate popular skills, which may waste time and energy and blur the child’s individual characteristics.
On the contrary, if one believes in these subjective standards and understands the spirit behind them, they can use them as a reference standard for “cultivating children who may succeed in the future” and make long-term plans accordingly.