Paul Erdos, the peripatetic mathematician, had an unconventional approach to his work. His nomadic lifestyle, which involved hopping from one collaborator’s couch to another, challenged the stereotypical image of a solitary scientist toiling away in isolation. Erdos’s story offers a fascinating insight into the power of networking, often overlooked in the world of scientific and technological discovery.
Born in Budapest, Hungary, Erdos was a prolific mathematician who contributed to several areas of mathematics, including number theory, combinatorics, and probability. His unconventional approach to problem-solving – which involved bouncing ideas off with others and working collaboratively – set him apart. Erdos’s life was a testament to the power of networking and collaboration. He co-authored over 1500 papers, a feat made possible by his extensive network of over 500 collaborators.
Consider Erdos’s work with fellow mathematician George Szekeres. The duo discovered an elegant solution to a problem in combinatorial geometry – known today as the Erdos-Szekeres theorem. This collaborative success story started with a shared taxi ride, where they discovered their mutual interest in the problem. In the confines of that taxi, they brainstormed, challenged each other’s ideas, and eventually solved the problem. This story underscores how networking isn’t about socializing, but about symbiotic intellectual growth.
Erdos’s networking approach benefited him in three significant ways. First, it constantly challenged his thoughts. Each collaborator brought a unique perspective to the table, forcing Erdos to question and refine his ideas. This intellectual sparring honed Erdos’s mathematical prowess and gave rise to innovative solutions.
A great example of this intellectual stimulation is Erdos’s collaboration with Alfred Renyi, a fellow Hungarian mathematician. Together, they developed the foundations of probabilistic methods in combinatorics and introduced the concept of the “Erdos-Renyi model,” a random graph model used widely in network science. This wouldn’t have been possible without Renyi’s expertise in probability theory, which challenged Erdos’s way of thinking and encouraged him to venture into unfamiliar mathematical terrain.
Second, Erdos’s networking strategy broadened his knowledge. By working with experts in diverse fields, Erdos was privy to a wide array of mathematical concepts. This exposure enriched his understanding and equipped him with the tools to tackle a broad range of problems.
To illustrate, Erdos once collaborated with Ronald Graham, a mathematician who specialized in discrete mathematics, a field somewhat distinct from Erdos’s primary interest in number theory. Their joint work resulted in groundbreaking contributions to Ramsey theory, a branch of combinatorics. Erdos’s immersion into Graham’s world of discrete mathematics extended his mathematical horizons and gave him a new toolkit for problem-solving.
Finally, networking fostered Erdos’s creativity. The exchange of ideas with his collaborators sparked new ways of thinking, pushing the boundaries of Erdos’s imagination. Erdos’s ability to generate creative solutions to complex problems was, in large part, a product of his collaborative endeavors.
A vivid example of this is Erdos’s work with number theorist Andrew Wiles. Wiles, renowned for his proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem, shared Erdos’s passion for numbers but approached problems from a unique angle. Their collaboration inspired Erdos to think differently, helping him uncover fresh, creative solutions. One result of their collaboration was a significant contribution to the study of “Waring’s problem,” a long-standing puzzle in number theory. This illustrates how the intermingling of different minds, even within the same field, can catalyze creative breakthroughs.
Erdos’s life is a testament to the power of networking in fostering intellectual growth and innovation. Each collaboration he embarked on offered a unique learning opportunity, an intellectual challenge, and a chance to think outside the box. This collaborative spirit, deeply embedded in Erdos’s work ethos, is a lesson for innovators in any field.
In the tech world, the prevailing notion of the solitary genius inventing in isolation persists. Many believe that the next revolutionary product will emerge from a techie tucked away in their basement. But Erdos’s story offers a different perspective. Innovation often arises from the synergy of diverse minds working together, not in isolation.
Successful tech innovators, like Erdos, understand the importance of collaboration. They realize that revolutionary products are often the result of collective effort, not lone genius. They understand that effective networking isn’t about small talk and business cards. Instead, it’s about engaging with individuals who challenge their ideas, broaden their knowledge, and stimulate their creativity.
The power of networking is a common thread among some of the greatest innovators in history. It’s not just the strength of their ideas, but also the strength of their networks that catalyzed their success.
Albert Einstein, for instance, enjoyed a fruitful intellectual camaraderie with luminaries like Niels Bohr and John von Neumann. Niels Bohr, a pioneer of quantum mechanics, engaged in many debates with Einstein over the nature of quantum theory. These discussions, famously known as the Bohr-Einstein debates, profoundly shaped Einstein’s thoughts on quantum mechanics and spurred him to refine his own theories. Similarly, John von Neumann, with his expertise in mathematical foundations, provided a different perspective that greatly influenced Einstein’s work, particularly in developing the theory of operator algebras used in quantum mechanics.
The founders of Google, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, are another great example. As graduate students at Stanford, they connected with established figures in the tech industry who provided mentorship and support. For instance, their networking led them to Andy Bechtolsheim, co-founder of Sun Microsystems. Recognizing the potential of Page and Brin’s idea, Bechtolsheim wrote them a check for $100,000 to start Google, even before they had officially formed a company. This initial investment helped them get Google off the ground. Moreover, their collaboration with Eric Schmidt, an experienced tech executive, was crucial in transitioning Google from a start-up to a globally dominant tech company.
Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft, is yet another embodiment of the networking ethos. Gates is known for his wide-ranging network of influential figures across diverse fields. One significant figure in Gates’s network is Warren Buffett. Their friendship, formed through mutual respect and shared interests, has been influential in Gates’s later philanthropic endeavors. Gates’s networking has also extended to figures like Bono, with whom he has partnered on various philanthropic initiatives, leveraging their shared influence to tackle global issues.
These innovators underscore the importance of networking in the world of innovation. The cross-pollination of ideas from different minds, each with their unique perspective, pushes the boundaries of what’s possible and fuels groundbreaking innovation.
It’s worth noting that networking isn’t a one-size-fits-all strategy. It manifests differently based on one’s personality, profession, and goals. For Erdos, networking meant solving math problems with fellow enthusiasts. For a tech entrepreneur, it might mean brainstorming business ideas, discussing their validity, or improving features of your product. The common thread, however, is the pursuit of intellectual growth through collaborative engagement.
Networking is an integral part of the innovation process. Erdos’s story serves as a reminder that groundbreaking discoveries often emerge from the collective effort of diverse minds. Whether you’re a mathematician, tech entrepreneur, or creative artist, networking can significantly enhance your work. It can challenge your thoughts, broaden your knowledge, and stimulate your creativity. So, reach out, engage, and collaborate.
Networking is not about randomly attending conferences without a plan. It’s one of several ways that ultimately increase your productivity in whatever you do. Forget the notion of the solitary techie.
– Inspired by Bill Gurley