You want to become the best, so you work hard and try to have as many good ideas as possible.
But it turns out that hard work isn't really enough. The age-old "it's not what you know, it's who you know" is also important. And as it happens, even that little nugget doesn't tell the whole story.
In fact, there is one very specific way you can improve your chances of getting to the top of your field.
Do you guru?
Are geniuses lone wolves or enthusiastic collaborators? It's hard to say in every case (some geniuses were lone wolves), but when it comes to influence and impact, it's hard to beat the power of collaboration.
A recent study on design "gurus," or those who are in the top 2% of most popular design patents, tried to uncover the sources of some designers' outsize success, with implications for idea cultivation in any field.
A key finding: 24% of designers who collaborated with a guru ended up as a guru themselves. On the other hand, only 4% of designers who worked alone eventually became a guru.
But it's not just about working with any other person -- who you work with makes a huge difference. In the same study, only 6% of designers who collaborated with someone other than a guru rose to the top of their field.
The implication? If you want to boost your chances of getting to the top, find yourself a collaborator or mentor who is already there.
Less is more
You might think that if mentors are the key to success, then you should find as many as possible.
But you really don't need to.
The same study found that the returns to additional mentors actually decrease, meaning that each new mentor you attain has a reduced impact on your eventual success. For designers, having a guru as a collaborator increases the chance of becoming a guru yourself by 44%. But the third guru-collaborator only boosts that probability by 16%. When comparing long-run outcomes, the study found that working extensively with a single guru was more likely to result in long-term success than working with several.
Instead of spreading yourself thin, consider working closely with that first guru. You'll have more time to soak up information and experience, and you'll spend less time trying to get the most out of several people at once.
Your talents, and your prominence, will flourish as a result.
It's not just about design
Now, you might be thinking, this study is about design, so what does it have to do with me as a software developer/philosopher/HR consultant? While the study looked at design patents, it isn't about design, per se.
It's about the output of ideas and the spread of those ideas, which is relevant to an enormous number of professions. Whether you're a scientist or a fashion designer, you're probably concerned about the number of ideas you have -- and if you're ambitious, you're also probably thinking about how many people are affected by them.
In your situation, finding a mentor who is already highly productive and influential can only help you achieve your goals.
Finding that mentor
Of course, no one said that getting in the door of your favorite guru's office would be easy. That alone might require a degree of persistence that only a few can muster.
But if you want to get to the top, the lesson remains: it really is about who you know, and more specifically about who you can learn from. Attach yourself to someone you really admire, and learn everything you can.
The payoffs will be very much worth your while.