The social-science wunderkind is a rare breed.
For one thing, most of the world’s prodigies tend to congregate in the hard sciences and the performing arts. For another: In every realm of academia, age 30 is well shy of when the typical career starts to take off. The majority of scholars don’t even have their doctorate in hand until after their 33rd birthday.
So when we decided to track down the social sciences’ 30 top thinkers under the age of 30, we knew we had our work cut out for us.
You may not have heard of any of these fresh-faced thought leaders yet, but we promise you that many of them will become household names.
We asked every academic we know to recommend someone for this feature. Most sent back apologetic responses to the effect of: “Almost everyone I can think of that I consider a rising star is in their early thirties,” and “I'll look into it but, as you may know, 29 is pretty young,” and “It is very rare for someone to have accomplished anything in academia and also be under 30.” We canvassed colleges, combed through dozens of CVs, begged friends to ask friends of friends.
Our stated criteria: We were hunting for intellectuals in the social and behavioral sciences who, because of their brilliance or originality of thought or ambition or charm or whatever, are likely to be famous in five to 10 years. The goal was to find the world’s not-yet-known Milton Friedmans and Philip Zimbardos and Margaret Meads.
In the process, we found a frustrating number of jaw-droppingly impressive people just a shade over 30. Solomon Hsiang, for example, missed our cutoff by just two days.
The result, though, after months of research, is a list of dazzling minds that will be shaping our society’s big ideas for years to come. You may not have heard of any of these fresh-faced thought leaders yet, but we promise you that many of them will become household names.
Among them are whiz-kid teens, an anti-college advocate, a bunch of early-career professors, and even a married couple (Glen Weyl and Alisha Holland share a made-at-Princeton love story).
While interviewing these remarkable overachievers, themes emerged, the foremost of which is mentorship. Not one of these thinkers thinks that they could have gotten where they are on their own. They’ve all benefited from a certain mix of serendipity, openness, and enterprise. Most claim a story of meeting exactly the right person at the right time.
More of these 30 than you might think have risen from tough circumstances. Most are admirably—and genuinely—humble. Many are contrarians, critical of the current state of their field and motivated by the need for change. But they also possess a rare level of patience. They know, on a deep level, that work of the caliber they do takes time.
Perhaps most of all, these phenoms have an abiding love for the beautiful stories that research can tell. They understand the aesthetics of a good idea and the elegance of a well-conducted study.
Lest you start to envision our 30 as pointy-headed shut-ins, let us tell you about their hobbies: One played in a heavy-metal band and is learning to tend bar. Another, who’s an improvisational comic in her spare time, also enjoys “dancing in the pit at ska concerts.” Our list includes an actor in Chinese theater, a pastry chef, and an avid rollerblader. These dynamic characters maintain a level of energy that helps them inhabit a diverse array of spheres with shape-shifting ease—and keeps each of them at least a little eccentric.
Here’s another thing our 30 have in common: Their work will make you feel better about our prospects as a society. While the rest of us binge-watch TV shows and fiddle around on Facebook, these brawny brains (and others like them) are focused on addressing society’s toughest challenges, from racism to mental illness to unrepresentative democracy. Their pursuits, whose implications ripple way beyond the ivory tower, are among our best hopes for a brighter future.