How to be successful, according to researchers

Researchers are using data to create a clearer picture of how success happens and to understand the hidden factors and biases that launch some into success and leave others behind.

Talent and hard work matter less than you think

Jean-Michel Basquiat's ability to network with artists like Andy Warhol set him apart from other artists, like his former collaborator Al Diaz. He was successful, experts say, because he was able to build strong connections with powerful influencers in the art world. (CBC/The Nature of Things)

Many of us like to believe that talent and hard work are the key to success, but that's not entirely true, according to some social and data scientists.

Talent and hard work are what make up performance: they're what you are as an individual. But success is how your performance is perceived and rewarded by society, said Albert-László Barabási, a physicist who studies complex social networks and success. 

"Your performance is about you, but your success is about us," he said. 

Barabási is one of the scientists featured in The Science of Success from The Nature of Things. The documentary unravels the secrets of success, reveals how society actually chooses winners and losers, and offers new insights into how to be successful.

While many try to make it big as athletes, artists and academics, only a few become known across the globe. So what sets the successful ones apart?

Knowing the right people matters as much as talent

Jean-Michel Basquiat is a well-known name in the art world, but did you know he had a collaborator early in his career? 

At the end of the 1970s, an enigmatic tag appeared on the walls of downtown Manhattan: SAMO©. It was a campaign by Basquiat and Al Diaz, an established graffiti artist with more experience than Basquiat. 

Today, lots of people are familiar with Basquiat, but few have heard of Diaz. 

How Jean-Michel Basquiat set himself apart in the art world

1 year ago
Duration 3:36
Basquiat collaborated with graffiti artist Al Diaz, but experts say his ability to network early on in his career is what set him apart and launched him to success.

"So how's it possible that two artists who start together, paint indistinguishable work, and one of them becomes the legend in the art world and the other one is still there in the New York scene, yet no one knows really about his work?" Barabási asks in The Science of Success.

One day, Basquiat spotted Andy Warhol at a restaurant and approached the artist to show him his work. Warhol happened to be having lunch with the commissioner of cultural affairs for New York City, Henry Geldzahler. That connection was the start of Basquiat's success.

Sam Fraiberger, a social scientist, says Basquiat's networking ability set him apart. "He was able to build these strong connections with powerful influencers of the art world very early on," he said.

If you want to be successful, it helps to … already be successful

One of the most successful campaigns ever on the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter was for a card game called Exploding Kittens, "a highly strategic kitty-powered version of Russian roulette," according to its website.

In 2015, the creators launched their Kickstarter with a goal of raising $10,000 US. They reached that goal in seven minutes. After a month, they had raised more than $8.7 million US and had roughly 700,000 orders for the game 

Exploding Kittens' inventors are game designer Elan Lee and Matthew Inman, founder of the Oatmeal, a comics website which, in 2015, had more than 700,000 followers on Facebook and 300,000 plus on Twitter. The Oatmeal's followers started funding the Kickstarter project, leading to a snowball effect of support and the game's massive success.

"I can look at Exploding Kittens and I can see a great card game that everybody wants to play. No wonder it was really successful," said sociologist Arnout van de Rijt in The Science of Success. "I can also look at Exploding Kittens and say, really, this is a fantastic example of a success-breeds-success dynamic." 

The creators of the card game Exploding Kittens had to fill more than 700,000 orders of the game after their massively successful Kickstarter campaign. (CBC Docs/The Nature of Things)

Van de Rijt and his team conducted a study to understand this type of success on Kickstarter. Researchers made a list of 200 unfunded projects, then randomly chose half to receive a donation. 

"What we did was really no different from what anyone else who participates on Kickstarter does: look at projects and decide to then donate to some and not to others," he said. "The only difference was that we decided on the basis of a coin flip, of a roll of the dice."

Those that got the first donation were about twice as likely to receive donations from other funders. "A random vote of confidence marked projects for success," van de Rijt said.

To be a successful athlete, it helps to be born early in the year

Athletes born early in the year have an advantage over those who were born later.

Psychologist Simon Grondin and his team were the first to spot what's called the relative age effect, a result of sports organizations putting kids in age groups defined by a cutoff date. This gives older, taller, more developed kids an advantage in many competitive sports.

"Suppose that you are here and you have two kids that are born the same year. One is born in January, and the other one is born in December," Grondin said in the documentary. "The one that is older will have better chances because they will be taller, they will be heavier, they will be faster, they will have more force."

This is compounded by another hidden bias: coaches see these older, more developed players as more talented.

"People think that they recognize a talent," van de Rijt said. "They pay more attention to this individual; they dedicate more resources, more time to this individual. And as a result, this individual becomes more successful."

The relative age effect gives kids who are older and more developed an advantage, psychologist Simon Grondin says in The Science of Success. (Canva)

Researchers are using data to create a clearer picture of how success happens and to understand the hidden factors and biases that launch some into success and leave others behind.

Every day, we leave digital fingerprints behind, and that information is a gold mine for data scientists: our tangled webs of social interactions can now be measured. By analyzing the patterns and variables that lead to success, researchers can better predict future success — they've done it for art, music and academic papers. 

So while success may be largely outside an individual's control, the science of success can help equalize the playing field. 

"What I believe is next is to think about how do we apply everything that we understand about success and failure to then help people — to help them succeed, to help them recover from failure, to help us identify the people who really, truly have the potential to succeed," said Dashun Wang, a professor at Northwestern University, in the documentary.

Watch The Science of Success on The Nature of Things on CBC Gem.

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