I am turning 37 in a week.
I try not to list down what most peers my age have accomplished in comparison of what I have, because it is an unhealthy habit, this act of comparison. It also adds to the fact that more often than not it made me feel like I am lagging behind. I know I know — very often I heard that everyone has their own battles that might be hidden underneath the smiling facade of social media. Or you can move forward in your life according to your pace. Or that your social status or the amount of productivity does not define your worth. I still struggle with it most of the time.
With that again, I turn to reading, as always.
As someone new to academics, I am intrigued by the scope of things. What is the definition of success? Who gets to define it? What are the metrics behind the measurement of success? What are other factors that could lead to success? (We all know the lone genius idea is a myth.)
And ultimately: what about the rest of us who (might) succeed later in life?
In this article by scientist Albert-László Barabási, he asserts that our chance of success has little to do with our age. It’s shaped by our willingness to try repeatedly for a breakthrough. Some of late-in-life successes he quoted includes scientist John Fenn who received his Nobel Prize in Chemistry in his mid-eighties; Alan Rickman, whose first movie role came at 46; 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; and Julia Child, who was 50 when she hosted her first TV show.
However, besides tenacity, all of these people have something else in common, which Barabási calls the Q-factor. How it works:
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. If we want to predict this impact, we need to establish how the two factors — the as-yet-unknown merit of the idea, or its r, and one’s Q-factor — work to determine a project’s ultimate success, or S. 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
Essentially, one needs to take a look at the combination of both Q factor and r.
- Low Q factor, high r-value = fantastic idea, poor execution.
- High Q factor, low r-value = great execution, poor idea.
When the combination is both high, they enhance each other — leading to a career-defining breakthrough.
But what happens if we keep trying, and we find out that our Q-factor is low? Barabási offers this advice:
If you are repeatedly failing at breaking through, you may very well be pursuing the wrong vocation. Or maybe you are stuck in a deeply solitary field.
Barabási’s notion is that if our Q-factor isn’t resonating with our job, we should consider if we’ve pinned our hopes on the wrong career path. It happens sometimes. And maybe we should also think of harnessing our networks to work together on some important projects we have in mind.
Barabási ends the article with this quote by Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai:
“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.”
Know your Q-factor, and keep your curiosity alive.
(P/s: Something that will keep me thinking throughout next week perhaps, “But perhaps you’ve had to compromise something good so that you could do something great. Perhaps you didn’t get your book idea written last year because your free time was spent focusing on your family or your health.”)