Why Even Geniuses Need Hustle

America’s brightest young academic isn’t just super smart. He also knows how to make connections.

Why Even Geniuses Need Hustle
[Image: Flickr user Pablo]

Erez Aiden is a ridiculously successful young professor. He’s only 33, but he’s made the cover of two most prestigious academic journalsScience and Nature three times. He helped invent a new field of study, culturonomics, which tracks cultural shifts by way of big-data rigor. But as a profile of the thinker shows, he gets his ideas put into reality not only because he’s brilliantly intelligent, but because he has hustle.


As we’ve talked about before, we can say that hustle is the ability to interact with positive chance, allowing you to create opportunities that wouldn’t otherwise be there–and having the know-how to realize them. Usually, opportunity comes attached to people.

Getting to know the right people

Nepotism is a nasty word for a nasty practice: people who know people are ones that get ahead. It comes from back in the day when popes and bishops would land their nephews gigs as cardinals. But it’s a fact of business and life: the shape, breadth, and diversity of our networks predict our success. Especially if we know how to use them.

Consider the case of how Aiden’s most attention-getting project, the n-gram viewer, was able to deepen a crucial partnership with Google Books. As Christopher Shea writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the brokering was accelerated by an accomplishment of his wife Aviva Aiden, also a high-achieving academic:

Aviva Aiden had recently won a prize from Google, for her work in computational biology. Because Aiden was joining her for the ceremony, he emailed Google’s head of research, Peter Norvig, to talk about the potential of mining the book data.

Recruiting people in power to your cause

Even bright-minded whippersnappers like Aiden need help from above to get their work to move forward. You can call them mentors or sponsors–the kind of person who can vouch for you behind close doors, help you dodge a bullet, and otherwise be an awesome elder.

The story of the n-gram viewer, the rabbler-rousing analytics device, provide another example. The data was, of course, Google’s, and Aiden’s team had access through a research assistant’s Google internship. So they called on Steven Pinker, who beyond being a great Colbert Show guest, is one of the most prominent public academics alive:

Although backing the project, Google was uneasy about letting the data out of the Googleplex … So they recruited (mathematical biologist Martin Nowak and the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker (both of whom were to be co-authors of the culturomics paper) to go to Mountain View, Calif., and lend gravitas to their appeal to the company.

“If we couldn’t get them to release it to us, we knew we would not be in a good position to get them to release it to the world on a website,” Aiden says.

Even if you’re a genius, you still need to be connected.


Hat tip: Study Hacks

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.