3 Lessons in Collaboration and Networking from Paul Erdos
Utkarsh Amitabh’s latest essay for Harvard Business Review
In this personal essay, Utkarsh narrates what he has learned from reading about Paul Erdos, who probably the most loved, most well-networked, and most talented mathematician of his time.
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Have you heard of Paul Erdos? Erdos (pronounced “air-dish”) was a quirky Jewish mathematician who could mentally, and rather quickly, calculate the number of seconds a person had lived at the age of four. Time Magazine called him “the oddball’s oddball.” He was known for showing up at people’s doors at odd hours saying, “My mind is open.” What that meant was, “I’m ready to take on new mathematical challenges.”
Over the course of his life, Erdos collaborated with more than 500 other mathematicians and played “math matchmaker,” introducing peers around the world to one another to advance mathematics research. These collaborations propelled the computing revolution and paved the way for modern search engines.
But Erdos wasn’t the easiest of guests to host. He couldn’t make his bed or boil water for his tea. He had very few clothes, so the hosts ended up doing laundry for him. He also thought little of waking up his guests in the middle of the night if he’d found a breakthrough in a problem they were trying to solve. Considering all this, you might find it a bit puzzling to know that Paul Erdos was probably the most loved, most well-networked, and most talented mathematician of his time.
You might be wondering “How?”
I came across Erdos’ work and philosophy when I was working on the mission statement for my company, Network Capital — a platform for career guidance and mentorship. I wanted to figure out a way to enable meaningful connections at scale. I was struggling with questions like, why should my company exist? How can it become more than just another networking platform? The more I read about Erdos, the more intrigued I became. I found the answers in his philosophy that was focused on finding breakthrough solutions, making others successful, and not worrying about who gets credit.
The very nature of his collaborations taught me that networking can be a means to add value to others. Through his approach I’ve learned how to form stronger, longer-lasting connections, and I encourage my community members to do the same when building out their professional networks. Here are three relationship-building strategies inspired by Erdos. Consider them as you expand your network and forge new connections at work.
Leave room for serendipity.
Erdos believed in giving serendipity a chance in order to discover new areas of collaboration. He would enter conversations with an open mind and open heart. Instead of jumping to a solution or being too eager to impress others with his knowledge, he would begin by asking thoughtful, open-ended questions. He truly engaged with the problem at hand and nudged others to open up about the precise problem they were struggling with. The result was that he not only helped his collaborators solve problems they were grappling with, but also empowered them to discover new ideas to work on.
Inspired by Erdos, I spend two hours every day speaking to Network Capital community members to discuss their career aspirations. The goal of these one-on-one, 20-minute coaching conversations is simply to get present with what is going on in people’s minds, what they’re working on that’s exciting them, or what they’re struggling with. The first five minutes are allocated for an open-ended discussion, and I often lead with, “So, what’s on your mind?” It might seem like a simple question, but people often talk about what’s energizing them at the moment, what’s bogging them down, or simply state what they need me to weigh in on. This helps set the tone for next 15 minutes where I try to find solutions that can best help them. Building the conversations this way lets me strike a healthy balance between structure and serendipity (which is great for new ideas!), and has helped me strengthen my relationships.
Pro tip: When meeting someone new or having a first conversation with a client, start with an ice breaker — but reframe it. Instead of asking, “How’s work going?” lead with “What’s exciting you these days?” This reframing can have a disproportionate impact on the depth and breadth of your discussions. While relationships take time to grow, they’re unlikely to blossom into something meaningful if you focus all your conversations on utility.
Be clear about your goals.
Erdos was not a man with hidden agendas, and he did not mind healthy conflict. If he needed something, he would be clear about it. If he wanted to offer critical feedback, he would do so straight up. When he disagreed or debated with someone, they didn’t doubt his intentions. His disagreements came from a place of curiosity, not judgement. And he was consistent with his behavior, irrespective of who he was collaborating with. This created a high-trust environment that fostered deep collaboration.
Consistency compounds trust and relationships thrive with consistency. Think about it: Would you trust someone who seems to have an ulterior motive to collaborate? In Erdos’ case, by repeatedly showing up to help his collaborators, he demonstrated his commitment towards making them successful.
Pro tip: When you’re reaching out to someone for help, don’t sandwich your ask or worse, camouflage it. Be polite and give them an out, but also be straightforward. While writing my book, for instance, I reached out to several mentors for testimonials. I was direct in my ask and found it helpful to communicate the core point upfront: “I’d love for you to write a testimonial for my book. Coming from you, the recommendation would be very valuable and have a great impact on the readers. If you’re unable to, I completely understand. No hard feelings.” Most of the people I reached out to agreed.
Focus on adding value.
Erdos’s superpower was making others great. Instead of thinking about what he could get out of people, Erdos collaborated with the intent of adding value to their lives, specifically by making their research more robust, by nudging them to consider all possible scenarios, introducing them to other scientists, and working with them to fine tune their research.
This attitude is best documented in what is called the Erdos number — the collaborative distance between Erdos and another person. He had 509 direct collaborators in his lifetime. These were people with Erdos number 1. The people who have collaborated with Erdos’ direct collaborators have an Erdos number of 2, Albert Einstein being one of them.
Had Erdos not built a social network of committed mathematicians who built off of each other’s work, one could reasonably argue that computing would have progressed at a slower pace. He was instrumental to the development of a branch of combinatorics known as the Ramsey theory, which other mathematicians and scientists have built on top of. Today, it finds application in the field of quantum computing.
The beauty of this principle of adding value and empowering others is that it can be adopted by anyone. Adding value isn’t dependent on seniority or your place in an organization. Whether you are speaking to your CEO or an intern on your team, they have challenges, goals, and dilemmas. Think about how you can help them solve it.
Pro tip: If you approach people with a generous and compassionate mindset, you, like Erdos, will likely be well-loved by your seniors, peers, and predecessors. Do you have information that can help someone design a better presentation? Can you connect someone to the right person for a job? Are you willing to give someone feedback on their s new idea? Even the tiniest gesture counts because people realize you’re not in it only to get, but to give, too.
I never met Erdos but learning about his approach has shaped my outlook towards work and life. Empowering others to make the greatest impact through their careers is my mission. Every day when I conclude my work, I ask myself how I can be a bit more like Erdos tomorrow. So far it has served me well.
Have a great rest of your week!