While finishing my dissertation at Princeton, I had the distinct pleasure of taking a seminar with John Nash. If you’ve read the book or seen the movie, A Beautiful Mind, you’ll know that Nash suffered from schizophrenia and this seminar was one of his first appearances since having brought that mental ailment under control.
Not knowing what to expect, most of us signed up just for the opportunity to spend time with Nash. He was a legend. Though we’d seen him as a shadowy figure that often lurked around Firestone library with a stack of paper scribblings, none of us ever spoke to him and we were curious about what a true genius might actually say.
Strangely enough, that didn’t make everyone on the faculty happy. I remember one game theorist telling me that taking Nash’s seminar would be a “distinct waste of time”. That was an ironic comment since Nash essentially “invented” game theory — non-cooperative game theory, in particular.
Non-coop game theory is the study of how individuals or institutions might interact strategically if they don’t communicate and Nash won the 1994 Nobel Prize for presenting the first, stable solution to such a situation. If you loved the films, The Usual Suspects or LA Confidential, for example, those plots demonstrated non-cooperative game theory in its great, Hollywood form.
Surprisingly, however, Nash didn’t speak about non-coop game theory. Instead he presented the work he’d been doing on cooperative game theory. Coop-game theory is about how groups of individuals might enforce behaviour to achieve certain outcomes. Just about every spy movie with a dastardly syndicate influencing its members involves coop theory.
Yet, what made Nash’s presentation amazing was his sharp mind and wit. He simply looked at things differently. His whole approach involved painting a picture of an idea — not simply stating a few results. Having not presented anything publicly in nearly 50 years, some complained that his work failed to connect with the recent direction of the literature and didn’t seem to have a point. That seemed like dismissive jealousy to many of us, since what Nash presented was simply fresh, true and relevant to the real world.
After the presentation, our group went to a small room with Nash for cookies and a discussion. Of course, while Nash wanted to talk about his results and possible extensions, we all wanted to know about his life and how he came to be “Nash”. That made him noticeably uncomfortable, so the group of us became a bit clever and started asking Nash questions that we hoped would reveal his genius.
I asked him who had influenced his choice of dissertation topic and he said, no one. Another person wondered whether Nash’s work was accepted readily by people around the mathematics department at the time and Nash said, no. Finally, we hit the jackpot when I asked Nash how his model could explain the politics of the world we currently see.
All of a sudden, this 70-something year old man stood up and spoke to us with a 20-something year old’s energy. He started illustrating the interesting point that powerful, cooperative relationships actually stem from the lack of power, not from the possession of it. Enforcing the rules of a coalition was really about playing on the fears and insecurities of other members.
All of that made a sort of counterintuitive sense to us. It made me think, for example, about Hitler’s rise to power and his ability to create alliances with the leadership of “seemingly nice countries”. In school, we were taught that most of these countries fell under Hitler’s sway for fear Nazi invasion. Nash’s model, however, suggested that insecurity was what might have motivated the Axis powers.
While we pondered Nash’s ideas, what further amazed us was his humility and hunger for intellectual interaction, even with us lowly graduate students. He spoke to us as colleagues and invited us to validate his thinking. He also encouraged us when he believed we were on the right track, and gently corrected us when we got things wrong.
I was definitely the dumbest person in the room and felt especially fortunate to interact with him in this way. At one point, when he complimented me on something I said, I remember thinking, “A genius has just said he likes the way I think — I gotta’ tell my boys at home about this!”
Like all good things, our time with Nash eventually came to an end. I doubt that he took much away from us, but we definitely took a great deal away from him.
Nash taught me, for example, that brilliant ideas are not the exclusive domain of people with great minds; yet it’s hard to imagine many people deserving the title “great” without brilliant ideas.
Nash taught me that we thinkers are no less artistic and creative in our ideas than the greatest of artists, unless we choose to be so.
Nash taught me that even geniuses need other people to correct their thinking and vet their ideas (as he had done in interacting with Von Neumann).
Most importantly, however, Nash taught me that anyone’s mind can be beautiful if it focuses on producing beautiful ideas.
Maurice Ewing is a globally-experienced risk and strategy consultant that has worked in over 50 countries. You can follow him on his blog and on Twitter @mauriceewing.
This post originally appeared on LinkedIn.
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