Paul Erdos is a legend in the world of higher math.
He is the most prolific mathematician of all time, authoring over 1,500 papers in his lifetime. Making a single major contribution to the field of mathematics is an accomplishment. But 1,500? That’s other-worldly.
The Erdos number is a testament to his legendary productivity.
An Erdos number refers to a mathematician’s degree of separation from Erdos himself. Erdos alone was assigned a number of 0. His immediate collaborators were given an Erdos number of 1; their collaborators could claim an Erdos number of 2, and so on.
He practiced something called “social mathematics.” Erdos would materialize on a colleague’s doorstep and stay long enough to collaborate and co-author a few papers. Next, he would ask the current collaborator whom he should visit next.
What Was the Secret to Erdos’ Relentless Productivity?
He drank copious amounts of coffee and also used amphetamines almost continuously after 1971 until his death in 1996.
But more important than Erdos’ substance use was his single-minded focus on mathematics.
I’m interested in Erdos because he represents a great example of how to dominate a field.
He was ferociously intelligent. But there are more important determinants of success than raw intelligence.
So what are they?
1) Erdos Immersed Himself in Mathematics at the Exclusion of Everything Else
A trait that innovators seem to share is obsessiveness.
They latch onto a passion and dial up their productivity to extreme levels. Most would say this is unsustainable. But what about Erdos who remained productive for decades?
There’s no question that if you want to increase your skill, you have to be steeped in your field. But Erdos wasn’t just steeped: he lived and breathed mathematics. This level of commitment and passion transforms the whole project.
2) Erdos Leveraged Smart Drugs
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Erdos drank so much coffee and used amphetamines chronically.
Many people would say that Adderall isn’t a nootropic and may actually be anti-nootropic. That’s because Adderall is associated with neurotoxicity after chronic, prolonged use.
The prevailing view is that Adderall is beneficial if you have ADHD and harmful if you don’t.
What’s the evidence for this consensus?
One MRI-based neuroimaging study showed that psychostimulants in ADHD patients rescued alterations in brain structure compared with unmedicated subjects.
Consider the case of two identical twins with ADHD. If one twin was treated with Adderall and the other remained unmedicated, the medicated twin may ultimately end up with a better-developed brain (according to this isolated study).
Though I can only speculate, I doubt Paul Erdos had ADHD. So how was he able to use amphetamines for so many years without any plain ill effects?
One possibility is genetic differences in one’s susceptibility to amphetamine neurotoxicity.
Dopamine-releasing agents like amphetamine can also have beneficial (neurotrophic) effects. Amphetamine enhances stroke recovery, for example.
*So why should we care that Paul used amphetamine to churn out theorems sixteen hours a day? *
Paul Erdos is an amphetamine use case where someone – presumably without ADHD – realized benefits without any decline in cognitive function over many years. (Obviously, we can’t *know *that amphetamine helped rather than hindered Erdos, but it certainly looks that way.)
3) Paul Erdos Was An Intense Collaborator
What does Paul Erdos’ practice of “social mathematics” tell us?
As a layman, I assumed that math is a solitary endeavor, like armchair philosophy.
But Erdos was so prolific because he sought out collaborators and engaged them. Not just once or twice, but incessantly. He made it a way of life almost reminiscent of Socrates.
Erdos took other people’s insights and stitched them together into theorems.
It doesn’t matter how smart or talented you are – if you aren’t aware of all the important question marks in your field – you’re playing with a handicap.
Here’s an example from 21st-century analytic philosophy: Wittgenstein wouldn’t have had the same earth-shattering impact on the philosophy of language if he hadn’t met and studied with Bertrand Russel.
How can you apply this knowledge?
Find the thought leaders in your field and build relationships with them. Who knows, you might end up collaborating on a project.
The best way to build relationships with thought leaders is to engage them on the questions they find compelling.
If you feel like you’ve plateaued or lost motivation, find collaborators.
This is actually the premise behind forming a mastermind group.
Napolean Hill defines a mastermind group as:
“The coordination of knowledge and effort of two or more people, who work toward a definite purpose, in the spirit of harmony.”
If there’s any “secret” to be gleaned from Paul Erdos’ staggering productivity – that’s it.