Winning the most prestigious award in mathematics is a great honor. Being the first woman to win the award makes it a historic event, just like what Marie Curie did in physics and chemistry.
“Genius,” “virtuoso,” “star,” “outstanding,” “role model,” “brilliant”—these are just a few words mathematicians use in reference to her.
Maryam Mirzakhani, a Harvard-educated mathematician and Stanford University professor, was the first (and to date only) female winner of the Fields Medal, the most prestigious award—the Nobel equivalent—in mathematics.
Mirzakhani—one of the most eminent mathematicians in recent years—lived a short life, just 40 years. But according to her colleagues, her achievements began a new era in her field. “It’s as if we were trying to log a redwood forest with a hatchet before, but now they’ve invented a chainsaw,” said Alex Wright, acting assistant professor at Stanford.
What qualities helped her to reach her full potential?
“She [Mirzakhani] has a fearless ambition when it comes to mathematics.”
— Curtis McMullen of Harvard University, a 1998 Fields Medalist and Mirzakhani’s doctoral adviser
According to her father, she was not born a genius. “She was like every other persons her age. She was studying and going forward. Her daily life was ordinary like every other, busy with school stuff,” Mirzakhani’s father said to a local magazine.
So, what exactly differentiated her?
Talent? Not according to her father. Highly talented people throughout history have failed to reach the top. Historically speaking, many top scientists and entrepreneurs, including Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein, demonstrated no talents early in their lives.
Passion? Not so. Passion is worthless on its own. Most of us passionate about something.
Mirzakhani was the first girl to join Iran’s Olympiad team when she was 17. She won a gold medal two successive years at the International Mathematical Olympiad, went to graduate school at Harvard University, and graduated with a revolutionary thesis—that takes more than passion. Ambition overrides talent and resources and transforms thoughts into things.
Ambition helps transform dreams into reality.
Passion is not enough to reach your true potential. Passion is what you dream of being without facing any problems in front of you. Ambition, on the other hand, gives you the purpose, perseverance, and willingness to fight, sacrifice, and suffer. Passion without ambition is like a car without gas. It’s beautiful to look but useless.
There should be a point where passion becomes ambition. All successful and fulfilled people experience such a point in their lives. It’s a mutation—going from being a legend in your own mind to becoming a legend in the real world. Mirzakhani realized this early in her life and ambition fueled her skills.
Have you reached your turning point?
“She [Mirzakhani] embodies a rare combination of superb technical ability, bold ambition, far-reaching vision, and deep curiosity.”
Curiosity is the foundation of all new discoveries, because pushing the boundaries takes continuous questioning and learning. Curiosity keeps you moving forward and fearlessly facing uncertainties. And with a little optimism—Mirzakhani was popular for her infectious optimism—you’ll always find the answers.
You know what will come with the answers, even just the journey itself? Pure joy and satisfaction as you’ve never before experienced them.
Curiosity and optimism. Isn’t it a type of confidence—the belief that problems can be solved? I think it is.
“She [Mirzakhani] would formulate in her mind an imaginary picture of what must be going on, then come to my office and describe it. At the end, she would turn to me and say, ‘Is it right?’” McMullen said to the Quanta Magazine. Tackling the most challenging problems in her field with curiosity and optimism resulted in a truly spectacular thesis and three papers in the three top journals of mathematics.
Mirzakhani believed that you have to ignore low-hanging fruit along the way, and that it isn’t supposed to be easy. It sounds illogical. But if boundless curiosity and ambition work hand in hand and fuel each other, you don’t care about achievement. Indeed, your definition of achievement becomes completely different. Simply put, the life you live (your journey) is your achievement.
But beware! Curiosity inspires creativity, and if your curiosity dies, your creativity will decline. Curiosity needs to be cultivated to stay alive and grow. You can’t keep calling yourself a writer forever unless you actually write books. Success comes from doing, not declaring. Mirzakhani had a lively curiosity, and it earned her a new honor at least every five years.
3. Embracing uncertainty
“It is like being lost in a jungle and trying to use all the knowledge that you can gather to come up with some new tricks, and with some luck you might find a way out.”
Mirzakhani described the uncertainty she faced in her research as “being lost in a jungle.” She had a simple strategy to deal with uncertainty: She embraced it, going forward based on what she knew and what she could learn, and had the optimism to know that things would work out.
Her simple strategy was not accidental. Historically, if you know your goal, a simple strategy usually works. It worked for Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein and many successful scientists, entrepreneurs, politicians, etc. Simplicity has its roots in a positive mindset. It is belief in yourself. Simplicity helps you prevent panic and find the best way to handle situations, no matter how uncertain or complicated.
Another trait that helped her effectively manage uncertainties was humility. She didn’t measure herself against other mathematicians. “Maryam would engage directly with the scientific challenge, with the mathematics, no matter how hard it was, and really go deep into the heart of the matter,” McMullen said to the New Yorker.
She didn’t want to go beyond others; she collaborated with mathematicians and together they proved several of the most challenging, long-standing theorems. She didn’t seek pride and perfection. She ignored the news of winning the Fields Medal, because she assumed the email message was just someone playing a joke.
Even though Mirzakhani proved many theorems about the shortest paths on curved surfaces, there are no short or long paths in our lives. There is just the path, from the beginning to the end. Living fully along the path needs ambition, curiosity and the ability to embrace uncertainties.