Thirty Under 30: The Top Young Thinkers in Economics, Education, and Political Science - Pacific Standard

Thirty Under 30: The Top Young Thinkers in Economics, Education, and Political Science

Throughout the month of April we're profiling the individuals who made our second-annual list of the 30 top thinkers under 30, the young people we predict will have an impact on the social, political, and economic issues we make it our mission to cover every day at Pacific Standard.
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(Illustration: Graham Smith)

(Illustration: Graham Smith)

Glenn Doman, who devoted his life to developing extraordinary people via his Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential, struggled for decades to find an adequate definition of intelligence. He finally came up with this: “Intelligence is the degree of ability one has to see the difference between the way things are and the way things could be, and to make them closer to the way they could be.”

When we set out to put together this year’s list of astounding young thinkers, it wasn’t our agenda to find an activist crop. But as we went down the typical avenues to rustle up obscure-but-not-for-long names, these were the ones that kept popping up.

There appears to be a movement among scary-smart young people to, well, move. And shake. To take risks. To enact the change that their research “suggests” they should.

Our 30—or at least most of them—know that they’re intelligent, but, more importantly, they know how to apply their intelligence. They understand—and live—the fact that action trumps intellectualism. They’re aware that research without implementation is hollow, and that to meaningfully contribute, it’s necessary not just to study but to step into Theodore Roosevelt’s proverbial arena.

Today’s young psychologists, economists, and sociologists are extreme devotees of statistics and other mathematics. They feel strongly that the rigorous standards that are applied to the harder sciences need to be applied to their disciplines too.

Many work to better the lives of the disenfranchised: the poor, the imprisoned, the very young, the old. If their brains are sophisticates, their hearts are servants.

Our roster turned out fairly diverse this year. It includes inner-city kids, military brats, sons of professors. These 30 have roots all over the world, from Moldova to the Dominican Republic. Many are immigrants or children of immigrants. Many rose—are still rising—from poverty. Their faiths vary, from deeply Christian to avowedly atheist.

We hardly need to explain why this is a good thing but may as well point out that the world can’t possibly improve if it’s driven by just one type. It’s often the person from the unexpected place who has that crucial insight needed to roll us into a new and improved paradigm.

Lest you think that these 30 social scientists’ work is “fuzzy,” it is anything but. “Data-driven research” is their collective buzz phrase. Today’s young psychologists, economists, and sociologists are extreme devotees of statistics and other mathematics. They feel strongly that the rigorous standards that are applied to the harder sciences need to be applied to their disciplines too. And if their output is any indication, the social sciences are zooming toward a black-and-white starkness that is miles away from the grayer zones of their beginnings.

We’d be remiss, at this point, not to mention that after we published last year’s inaugural 30 under 30 round-up, we heard some criticism. A few academics suggested that we should be running a 40 under 40 list instead. (“There really aren’t ‘legit’ rising stars until the early thirties,” one said.) People commented that most of those we profiled wouldn’t pan out to be true luminaries. That, like a star shooting across the night sky, their light will fizzle back into the murk.

Here’s the thing, though: The 30 on this year’s list have already changed the world. They’ve written laws, led groundbreaking studies, made startling discoveries, testified before legislative bodies, founded non-profits, discovered new languages, helped run presidential campaigns, and done other phenomenal things that don’t fit into a tidy little phrase.

True, no one can say whether they’re poised to keep doing even greater things or whether they’re peaking now. But we’re willing to bet that these exceptional personalities won’t wilt away.

Not all are classic geniuses, we should add. Their gifts vary in exciting ways: Many are extraordinarily brilliant. Others are extraordinarily energetic. Or extraordinarily kind.

They do work that’s painstaking, slow, and frustrating—solving entrenched problems isn’t an activity for the impatient. But they’re a remarkably content and passionate set of people. Unbidden, almost all of them told us the same thing: “I can’t wait to get to work in the morning.”

Most are humble or at least self-deprecating. Many have a sharp sense of humor. All seem deeply grateful for their position in the world.

It’s fascinating to hear about the specific moments that have inspired each of their life’s work: a brief conversation with a stranger; a health scare; a hug from a destitute child. One gets the sense that it’s not so much that unusually poignant things happen to these bright young people, but more that they intercept what to others would be just a passing event and volley it into a meaningful life path.

Their shared ambition is to do research that means something beyond the ivory tower. They want their legacy to have measurably improved the lives of fellow humans.

Because, after all, what good are ideas if they don’t change anything?

THE 2015 LIST

We’ll be publishing profiles of this year’s list of the 30 top thinkers under 30 throughout the month of April. Visit this page every day to read about another young person who is making an impact on the social, political, and economic issues we make it our mission to cover every day at Pacific Standard.

A version of this year’s list is also available to subscribers as a feature in our May/June print issue. For more from Pacific Standard on the science of society, and to support our work, sign up for our email newsletter and subscribe to our bimonthly magazine. Digital editions are available in the App Store (iPad) and on Zinio (Android, iPad, PC/MAC, iPhone, and Win8), Amazon, and Google Play (Android).

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