The Formula: The Universal Laws of Success is a book in which Albert-László Barabási outlines five laws for succeeding in any given field. He asserts that the five laws were the inescapable findings after analysing massive data sets related to sports, business, the arts, academia and innovation. So what are they and how do they relate to mountain bikers?
1. Performance drives success, but when performance is immeasurable, networks determine success.
When applying this law to mountain biking, performance of the individual undoubtedly drives success. However, there is a caveat to this as performance drives success in competitive mountain biking but what about elsewhere……like social media?
Riders like Wade Simmons and Danny MacAskill stand out as figures who haven’t made their name through winning competitions. Instead they have found success by showcasing their skills in films, and hence their success has come from the media networks that have allowed others to see their work.
In the cases of Wade and Danny, they are undeniably elite level performers but it doesn’t take a great deal of time to find large numbers of riders out there, with large social media followings, that are far from elite level in their riding but who are finding a lot of success on social media platforms. An example that springs to mind from BMX is Adam LZ who, by chronicling his development, took himself from non rider to a pro BMX contract with Stranger.
2. Performance is bounded, but success is unbounded.
At the top of any field, the difference in performance/quality is slim. Whether you’re a mountain biker, violinist, or a bottle of wine, the difference between the best and the rest are small. However, the rewards that go with being judged to be number 1 over being number 2 are enormous and disproportionate.
As a result, it’s in peoples interests to not just be the best, but to look the part if they’re wanting to be successful. The pianist Lang Lang is known for his theatrical gesticulations at the keyboard and a research study showed both novice and expert judges did a better job of predicting the winners of a piano competition when they watched videos of the performances with the sound off. This indicates that the people judging the competition had themselves been swayed by appearances, not just the music.
So where are the parallels in mountain biking? The fastest rider down the mountain isn’t the rider whipping and roosting from top to bottom (except for one or two rare examples like Danny Hart winning the Champery Worlds in 2011). Having the ability to do those things, however, takes a level of learned skill that riders and non riders will appreciate. This is part of the reason why those same riders, when recording promotional films, aren’t often filmed going fast but instead spend their time roosting, whipping and pulling other tricks as they jump etc…….the very things they wouldn’t dream of doing in a race.
3. Fitness x Previous Success = Future Success.
Barabási considers fitness to be more or less the same thing as quality here and sees it as a necessary condition for success. However, he suggests that fitness on it’s own is not enough to provide success. According to Barabási, to achieve future success, you need to have had success in the past. This is, of course, impossible if you’re just starting out and hence why successful people will go to great lengths to manufacture the impression of previous success. Sockpuppeting is the practice of a person pretending to be someone else online in order to write a good review about themselves, or their business etc and, guess what, it really works!
To provide evidence for this, Barabási highlights a study in a lower-middle-class school in San Francisco where teachers were falsely told that some of their first and second-graders had excelled on a standardised test. The students had been randomly selected and bizarrely did “spectacularly on the IQ test they took at the end of the school year”. The teachers expected brilliance and so encouraged brilliance, and the students responded.
There aren’t a lot of parallels that can be drawn (for the purpose of this article at least) here as, in mountain biking, performance is measurable. However, networking with successful mountain bikers eg being seen with them, being recognised by them etc will lead others to believe you to be more successful than you necessarily are. If social media stardom is more your line, carefully chosen pics & films of riding and even photoshopping pics along with inviting all your non-riding friends to, for example, like your page on Facebook, are all tricks people will use to raise there perceived level of success in others.
4. While team success requires diversity and balance, a single individual will receive credit for the group’s achievements.
I drew attention to research that suggests only about 15% of an individual’s success in competitive sport is due to them, while 85% is due to the team and technology around them in Is it the Bike or the Rider that Wins the Race? If you think of any mountain bike rider, how many of their support staff can you name? Two teams that spring to mind as being different in this respect are The Santa Cruz Syndicate and YT Mob, with their support staff being given comparable airtime to their star riders on several occasions but even then, you know who the stars are.
5. Success can come at any time as long as we are persistent.
This final law is more difficult to apply to mountain biking as any given persons athletic performance will deteriorate with age. However, as I wrote in the first law section, there are different types of success to be found in mountain biking. Providing you pick the right niche, Barabási suggests there is no reason why you can’t achieve what you want to achieve.
The takeaway message from all this is that success can very definitely be a zero-sum game as there’s only room for one at the top. However, if you follow the five laws and apply yourself appropriately, there’s no reason that you won’t achieve your own personal successes.
If you’re going to take the time to practice, practice like the elite.
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