A Beautiful Mind

by Site Author

Last week, John Nash passed away. Nash was a mathematician who made enormous contributions to the field of game theory, contributions for which he was awarded the 1994 Nobel Prize in economics.

Nash became famous to laypeople when a movie was made about his life in 2001. A Beautiful Mind told Nash’s story, from mathematics wunderkind, to his battle with schizophrenia, to his eventual Nobel Prize and public recognition later in life.

My favorite part of the movie is the scenes of Nash as a graduate student. Here is Nash, in the film’s script, explaining himself to a roommate as he works on his thesis.

Charles: Lots of smart people around here.

Nash: But that’s all I am. Smart. I’m not warm. I don’t do people well.

Nash: Half these guys already published. I can’t waste time with books or classes. I have to come up with a truly original idea. It’s the only way I’ll distinguish myself. It’s the only way I’ll…

Charles: Matter.

Nash glances over to Charles, startled, then just nods.

The movie then shows Nash holed up in the library for days at a time, struggling to find “a truly original idea.”

Though I’ve made much less of a contribution than Nash, the scene reminded me of my third year of graduate school. That year was filled with enormous frustration. After finishing two years of training, I had powerful tools for research, and I had time for research, but I had no actual research to show for it. I spent weeks brainstorming, trying to find a viable project, and simply hit upon dead end after dead end.

Jonah Lehrer, a (partially disgraced) science writer, has described how unavoidable frustration is as part of the creative process. As Lehrer puts it:

When we tell one another stories about creativity, we tend to leave out this phase of the creative process. We neglect to mention those days when we wanted to quit, when we believed that our problems were impossible to solve. Because such failures contradict the romantic version of events — there is nothing triumphant about a false start — we forget all about them… We tell the happy endings first.

The danger of telling this narrative is that the feeling of frustration — the act of being stumped — is an essential part of the creative process. Before we can find the answer — before we probably even know the question — we must be immersed in disappointment, convinced that a solution is beyond our reach. We need to have wrestled with the problem and lost.

And that’s how I spent my third year of graduate school: immersed in disappointment. It took a lot of work and a bit of luck for a thesis to materialize. Frustration and disappointment were never far away.

Even now, years later, as my research agenda has started to coalesce, that frustration and disappointment are still a part of the process. Projects still fail, and I still have to stare at a blank page from time to time. If there’s any difference now, it is that I’ve gained a bit of wisdom regarding how inextricably linked the suffering of research is to the joy of research. One cannot have one without the other.