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Forget Ideas. Focus on Execution.


Beyond the Impact Instinct

Study Hacks readers know that I’m fascinated by Erez Lieberman Aiden: an absurdly accomplished young professor who racked up three covers in Science and Nature by the age of 33.

In an earlier post on Aiden, I hypothesized his “secret” was a well-develop impact instinct that allows him to hone in on attention-catching problems.

After reading a recent Chronicle of Higher Education profile of Aiden (in which I’m quoted), however, I’m beginning to suspect I was wrong…

My suspicion began with the following quote about Aiden, provided in the Chronicle profile by one his colleagues:

[1] He can really recognize a good problem, [2] quickly learn what kinds of methods are out there that might be useful in solving it, [3] somehow combine those into a new concept, and [4] identify experts in those fields to work with.

This quote lists four traits (the numbering is mine). The first is about coming up with a good idea, but two through four all deal with the “nitty-gritty” details of transforming a vague notion into concrete and impressive results.

Later in this profile, these traits are elaborated when we learn about the multiple obstacles Aiden and his collaborators faced in building the Google n-gram viewer (which became the source of much of his recent attention):

  • The meta-data was messy: so they developed a new algorithm to clean it up.
  • Google got cold feet about letting Aiden have access to their data: so Aiden convinced Steven Pinker to join the project to help them bypass red tape.
  • And so on.

This article, in other words, helps crystallize a reality that I have increasingly recognized in my own career: coming up with good ideas is easy; executing them at an elite level is staggeringly difficult.


My friend Josh Millburn, of The Minimalists fame, just published a memoir about his transition to simplicity: Everything that Remains. I found it compelling — a more literary look at a world often confined to the how-to genre. If you’re interested minimalism, check it out.

(Photo of Erez at TED Boston by Ritterman)

15 thoughts on “Forget Ideas. Focus on Execution.”

  1. This topic of idea execution has frustrated me for a while, especially in my specialized field of reading and writing instruction.

    Your #4 trait, “being able to identify experts in those fields to work with,” is critical, but I would add a political dimension to it. A person needs to identify not only experts but people who have the money and power to help you execute and promote your ideas throughout the field.
    Right now there is a woman who has become the go-to person in a certain area of my field, and what is so infuriating is that she does NOT know more than I do. While she is promoting some of the ideas that my colleagues and I have been implementing for more than 15 years, she is also pushing ones that are not as effective. These ineffective ideas have resonated with a majority of the untrained practitioners. She has packaged the information to agencies with money who have been pushing her view of the field throughout the state.

    To top it off, she has been specifically singling out my college’s program and bad mouthing us, without ever talking to us or examining our program, while promoting her program as a more successful way of teaching reading and writing.

  2. Cal,

    Fascinating post. In addition to his instinct for the right problems, as you note, the Chronicle article demonstrates Aiden’s professional connections and social gifts and how he puts them to work for his research. In a much earlier post, you mentioned who a researcher had lunch with as affecting his research. Nowadays can a solitary genius be as successful?

    PS. I trust many readers have already referred you to Iya Tokumitsu’s article “In the Name of Love,” in Slate, arguing that promoting “Do what you love” thinking leads to exploiting low-wage workers, like, for example, academics with contract jobs. MCG



    • I found the question, ‘Now a days can a solitary genius be successful?’ very thought-provoking. With the rise of social media, there is such an enormous emphasis on being a successful communicator. It is necessary for both individual success and a company’s success. I think the days of the ‘solitary genius’ are probably over. With technology changing so fast, anyone who doesn’t keep up-to-date with the latest discoveries and inventions will be left behind. While the craze for social media certainly has its downsides, one enormous benefit is that the best of almost any field are able to network, brainstorm and collaborate together with more ease than at any other time in history. This creates a perfect environment for the kind of work Dr. Aiden is involved in. The saying ‘two heads are better than one’ applies here: intellectuals can learn from each other and bounce ideas around, fuelling one another to higher discoveries.

  3. Good point Cal!

    I believe that this also applies to graduate school. Many guys come with really good ideas (something that opens good departments’ doors), but they do not know how to apply them. By the time they defend their dissertation, they get poor placements, and develop worse careers.

    Somehow, I see kind of snowball effect in this.


  4. There’s a shorter and breezier version of some of the points made in the Slate article in Stylist, a women’s magazine in the UK.


    The Stylist article picks up a point in Cal’s book that good jobs, the kind that people love, are not as common as people who want to do them, although it’s not quite as explicit in saying that you have to master a rare and valuable skill to be in a position to get them (or create them).

    On a separate note, if you look at the tech startup blogging scene, it’s almost a cliche that an idea is valueless and execution is everything. Investors back people who they believe will execute well and not ideas.

    Relatedly, it is common to say that people worth backing will often iterate their way to the best idea through interaction with the market. In fact, the whole Lean Startup cult/fad/revolution celebrates the notion of the pivot – the change that happens when people with founder-market fit change their idea as a result of early testing to achieve product-market fit.

    However, another common theme in this area of blogging is that there are too many people working on low-value ideas, like another app or social-media thingamajig, and not enough on stuff that genuinely disrupts some big, consumer space.

    So there’s quite a few tech bloggers who seem to think that the ability to spot a great opportunity is necessary but not sufficient rather than worthless by itself, where this opportunity spotting ability is not much about having a great idea but having a great ambition whose expression through an idea may evolve during outstanding execution.

  5. Dear Cal,

    What would you define as a good (research) problem? What is a good way to discover research topics?

    Just wondering.


  6. Cal,

    I appreciate your candid admission. It’s very difficult to admit you’re wrong especially in print. And, no doubt executing ideas is a challenging task. It strikes me that these two tasks – impact instinct and execution, may be more intertwined than we think. For instance, the impact instinct helps in execution by generating ideas that will have the most impact towards solving the original problem. The “impact instinct” showed Aiden, for instance, that enlisting Stephen Pinker on the project would have the most impact towards execution. So, maybe it’s more precise to say that your hypothesis was incomplete rather than totally wrong.

    Thanks for the post,

  7. Another interesting quote in the same article from Michel (you may locate this quote in the paragraph above the one Cal mentioned in his post), give us insight on how Aiden can really recognize a good problem:
    “He has virtually no boundaries in his curiosities,” Michel says. “He’s not scared of asking weird questions, and that’s pretty powerful.”

  8. Nice post. Execution is certainly a key skill, but I would still give a lot of importance to the idea generation step. Not just having an idea (saying “This could be done…”) but actually defining in detail all the aspects of the idea and identifying the limitations and oportunities that the idea will generate. Execution is not so hard if you have a clear path to follow and milestones to reach.

  9. More than facinated, I am a little confused by Dr. Aiden’s career. His Google Scholar profile ( tells that he has published 9 peer-reviewed articles, only 5 as first author (other papers might not be indexed there). This could be considered a weak career according to some arbitrary figures of merit of research performance. Only the impact of the journals where he published and the number of citations show that his work is excellent. It is surprising that he did not spend time developing his concepts in specialized journals before (or after) going to the “big ones”.

    Cal might be too nice to mention this, but it seems obvious that the fact that he submitted the articles from Harvard/MIT and with famous co-authors possibly helped in getting the paper published in Science and Nature. I don’t want to imply that his work is less than excellent in any way. But publishing in these journals is more an art than science some times considering the overwhelming amount of outstanding articles they review each day.

    This could be a nice topic for another post: is there really a bias helping famous groups publish or is this just a myth? And is it deserved the relevance given to these top journals (relevance in terms of quality, we know that in terms of carrer promotion publishing there is terrific)?


  10. From the article: “At Princeton, Aiden started off taking one more course in his first semester than the typical student, then kept adding to the number each term, until he reached 10 or so. ”

    How on earth did he do that?

  11. He is definitely awesome and a great personality. Let me just mention that when I had read his article in the fractal globular organization of the human genome there were hints of an inmense collaboration effort.

    The article has more than six authors, the Hi-C technique is an evolution of the methods his advisor had been working on for more than ten years. The people who did the genome sequencing and made the protocols are also accumulated over the years at that particular lab.

    As i said, Erez is awesome, but his success also comes from his adaptation in working with experts.


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