Like many people, my first impression of the story of John Nash was from the movie. The movie was quite good, but the story itself was what I found most compelling.
John Nash was brilliant but his antisocial behaviour made him weird. Even the colleagues who found him annoying couldn’t deny he was going to make a name for himself, though. Sadly, just as his career was taking off, his behaviour became worst. His world came crashing down after his diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. The novel A Beautiful Mind tells how John Nash’s decades-long battle with the disease and his recovery.
There are 3 most interesting lessons from this book:
- John Nash’s mathematical brilliance began at a young age and his graduate work made him a promising up-and-coming academic.
- Immense stress contributed to his diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia which derailed his career and personal life for decades.
- Nash’s story ends happily with his recovery and career success.
Are you excited to learn about one of the most influential and intelligent minds of our time? Let’s begin!
Lesson 1: John Nash’s brilliance
Like many geniuses, John Nash had some eccentric and reclusive tendencies. But though his parents worried about him socially, he had a gift for thinking about math problems in a new way. Surprisingly, he didn’t show good grades in high school math because he would neglect to show his work. Instead, he just write an answer that he had solved in his head. But in college, his professors were astounded by his methods for solving difficult math problems with ease, and he was accepted to graduate school at Princeton University.
Graduate students formed cliques under different mentoring professors, but Nash preferred to stay alone, making him not particularly well-liked. But he found his place working under John Neumann, who fathered game theory.
Game theory is a way to explain human decision-making among competing players through mathematical models. Nash expanded Neumann’s theory in his thesis to include games involving more than two players and allowing for cooperation. This crucial step in the development of the theory allowed it to relevant in real-world situations, particularly in economics. Most importantly, his additions to the theory allowed the possibility of mathematically determining human behaviour with the possibility of mutual gain. This became known as the Nash equilibrium, which would win him the Nobel Prize, but not until half a century later.
His thesis gave him huge recognition in the mathematics field and landed him a job at MIT. It was there that he met his wife Alicia, and things were looking very promising for the young family.
Lesson 2: Nash’s diagnosis of schizophrenia
When Nash approached the age of 30, he began to be increasingly anxious about not yet receiving tenure and a lack of new mathematical breakthroughs. His anxieties lead him to decide to take on Reimann’s hypothesis, a famously hard unsolved math problem. It was when he was putting all of his energy into this that he found out his wife was pregnant. This was when people noticed his increasingly strange behaviour.
Accusing his colleagues of looking through his trash to see his work on the hypothesis became common for Nash. He began to believe aliens were trying to ruin his career and they were sending secret messages through the paper. Turning down a professorship at the University of Chicago because he was “Emperor of Antarctica,” it was obvious that Nash was in deep.
The tipping point for Alicia came when he went to Washington, DC, in the middle of the night to give letters to embassies explaining there was an imminent world government. She had him committed to a psychiatric hospital, where he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Nash was treated and given the clear, but it was soon apparent he fabricated this to leave. He wandered to Europe to convince the embassies of his world government but eventually was deported.
Nash saw things get worse with his income source gone and Alicia filing for divorce. Living with his family for only a short time, he soon went back to an institution.
Lesson 3: His tragic story
To most everyone around him, all seemed lost. But in a miraculous turn of events, he began to recover.
It happened slowly, but the schizophrenia began to subside. By the late 1980s, people at Princeton saw his research as real math rather than incomprehensible equations. Nash himself said that he began to realize that though his paranoid thoughts were still tormenting him, he could reject them now.
More wonderful for Nash still, he was finally getting recognition for his contribution to game theory by receiving the Nobel Prize in Economics. After around 30 years away from academia, the invitation came for him to be a professor at Princeton.
He spent his remaining years reconnecting with family and friends he had estranged and reacquainted himself with Alicia. They remarried in 2001, and they lived out their lives together.