Some forms of creative genius seem unfathomable. But as Sylvia Nasar the author of A Beautiful Mind tells us, that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from them.
In Ron Howard’s movie based on my biography, A Beautiful Mind , Russell Crowe plays Princeton mathematician and economics Nobel laureate John Forbes Nash Jr. From the first frame, the young Nash — driven, brilliant, odd — is obsessed with finding the truly original idea that will reveal reality’s “governing dynamics” and, not coincidentally, win him mathematical stardom.
Clueless as Nash is about social dynamics, he correctly senses that it is ideas, as much as money, power, or sex, that make the world go round. That, of course, is what economic thinkers from Friedrich Hayek to Joseph Schumpeter, John Maynard Keynes, and Robert Solow have argued all along. The explosion of creative thinking in the past century and a half or so is the main reason living standards have risen eightfold, market economies have outperformed socialist ones, corporations have become innovation labs, and work has become more interesting.
And so we’d all love to understand, harness, and enhance that kind of thinking. How nations can promote creativity is the subject of many studies, including one by Edward C. Prescott, who just won a Nobel Prize in economics. But how the minds of truly original problem solvers such as John Nash work remains pretty much a mystery. While most of us can imagine writing a book and maybe painting a picture, very few of us can imagine composing Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, or proving Fermat’s Last Theorem. Such inventions strike us as magical, perhaps the reason one synonym for creativity is “wizardry.”
The 21-year-old John Nash was certainly a bit of a wizard to have come up with the first theory of nearly everything. That’s no exaggeration, either. Most theories apply to just one specific discipline. But game theory, the subject Nash is best known for tackling, applies to any situation involving a mix of competition and cooperation — corporate rivalry, competition for votes, Darwinian struggles among species. Nash’s thesis was just one of a spectacular string of problems that he solved before he turned 30 and the onset of delusions and hallucinations sapped his creative powers. In fact, most of the mathematicians I interviewed insisted that Nash’s contribution to game theory was the most “trivial” of his accomplishments.
His theory of noncooperative games won him a Nobel Prize in 1994, more than 30 years after he fell ill with schizophrenia. When I began working on Nash’s biography, I was very clear about spending most of the book telling the story of his twenties and his great burst of achievement, not his descent into madness. I found his ambition, focus, and obsession with originality extremely impressive. I was especially intrigued by the way he worked: what he chose to learn or ignore, how he picked problems, his strategies for solving them. At first, some of his work habits — not reading, for example — seemed merely eccentric. Now I realize that he was mostly trying hard to maintain his creative momentum and protect his unique way of seeing things. And as seemingly magical and unfathomable as his mathematical genius was, his methods for husbanding and marshaling it are likely to resonate with anyone who’s striving to do something that hasn’t been done before.
“His methods for husbanding and marshaling genius are likely to resonate with anyone who’s striving to do something that hasn’t been done before.”
Nash absolutely believed in learning by doing. “Classes dull the mind,” says Russell Crowe in one of the opening shots in the movie, reflecting Nash’s sentiments completely. At 15, Nash was making pipe bombs, mixing beakers of nitroglycerin, and re-proving theorems by Fermat. Once he got to Princeton, “it was as if he wanted to reinvent, for himself, 300 years of mathematics,” said the mathematician John Milnor, who was a freshman when Nash was a first-year grad student. Nash was also always primed for inspiration, no matter where or when it came. He quizzed well-known visiting lecturers, and carried a clipboard and jotted down ideas in illegible scribbles. Some of his best ideas came from trying to reconstruct arguments from his own indecipherable notes. Within a semester, he had invented something new — a beautiful game played on a rhombus with Go stones — that instantly established his reputation as a pure mathematician. Within 14 months, he had also started on the thesis that would win him the Nobel.
Nash thought of mathematics as a ferociously competitive sport. “I imagine that by now you are indeed used to miscalculation,” sneers Russell Crowe’s Nash to a rival. The rival taunts him back as he beats Nash at Go: “What if you never come up with your original idea? What if you lose?” For Nash, who craved recognition, mathematics was about winning. He wasn’t alone, either. “Competitiveness — it was sort of like breathing,” another graduate student told me. “We thrived on it.” Nash may have skipped lectures, but he never missed afternoon tea. That’s where the graduate students and professors played Go and Kriegspiel, the elaborate variant on chess, and traded insults and mathematical gossip. “Trivial” was Nash’s pet put-down. “Hacker” was another. Ranking students and professors — with himself on top — was a favorite pastime. He was by no means a brilliant chess player, only an unusually aggressive one. “He managed not just to overwhelm me but to destroy me by pretending to have made a mistake,” recalled a man who had made the error of challenging Nash to a game.
Winning didn’t mean much, though, unless the stakes were high. Nash was always looking for big, unsolved problems. At MIT in the early 1950s, Nash on a dare took up a problem that had baffled mathematicians for a century. The experts in the subject predicted he’d get nowhere. They were wrong. He succeeded by simplifying the problem and then pursuing a strategy that seemed bizarre only because it was novel. It was just another example of Nash’s tendency to trust his own instincts over received wisdom. “Everyone else would climb a peak by looking for a path somewhere on the mountain,” one of Nash’s supporters said later. “Nash would climb another mountain altogether and from a distant peak would shine a searchlight back on the first peak.” Or as Nash himself put it, he tended “to think that the thing to do is to get away from what other people are doing and not to follow directly in anyone’s recent work.”
But Nash was no loner. As eccentric and competitive as he was, he was remarkably good at recruiting other people to join his coalition. “Some mathematicians like to work by themselves,” another graduate student said. “He liked to exchange ideas.” At MIT, for example, Nash finished what some regard as his most important work by persuading half a dozen colleagues to spend months collaborating with him to fill in gaps in his proof. “It was like building the atom bomb,” recalled one. Even in graduate school, Nash’s “beautiful mind” motivated other students to look out for someone they regarded as “obnoxious, a brat.” One insisted that Nash claim credit for his Nobel Prize-winning proof by immediately publishing a version in the National Academy of Sciences journal. “He was spacey,” said David Gale, now emeritus professor of mathematics at the University of California in Berkeley. “He never would have thought of doing that.”
Making a movie that tries to take the audience inside Nash’s head confronted the filmmakers with a different kind of creative puzzle: translating thoughts and ideas into visual images. Akiva Goldsman, who wrote the screenplay, had the brilliant idea of letting the audience see the world through Nash’s eyes in the movie’s first half. The director, Ron Howard, invented scene after scene of carefully choreographed details to communicate the gist of Nash’s original idea — and later his delusions. Crowe exploited a chance encounter with Nash on the second day of filming to conjure up, eight weeks later, a perfect evocation of Nash in his seventies. Crowe wore the same red cap and tan raincoat, adopted the same tentative air, and repeated verbatim Nash’s monologue about Ceylonese versus Indian teas. It became one of the most affecting scenes in the movie. For me, that was the most extraordinary example of an actor’s wizardry.
The most surprising reaction to the movie came from high school students who told me they were intrigued by the world of mathematics, that they thought it was cool. It’s like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s definition of what makes a first-rate mind: the ability to hold two opposing ideas at the same time. I think it’s great that they think of mathematics and Russell Crowe together. Great stories do inspire, and a story that can spark an interest in pursuing original ideas is about as creative as anything I can think of.
Sylvia Nasar’s best-selling biography about John Nash, A Beautiful Mind (Simon & Schuster, 1998), inspired the Academy Award-winning movie. She holds the Knight Chair in Business Journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and is currently working on a book about 20th-century economic thinkers.
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