I went to school with a guy who could well be the most intelligent person in the world.
You might think that sounds like hyperbole. It’s not.
Akshay Venkatesh recently won the Fields Medal, which is often referred to as the Nobel Prize of maths. This puts him in rarefied air – the medal is awarded to only four people in the world, once every four years.
When I heard the news of this remarkable achievement, my immediate response was: “well of course he did”. Because Akshay was no average kid, to put it ridiculously mildly.
In fact, when I say I went to school with him, that’s a little misleading. I was indeed in a class with Akshay – it’s just that he happened to be 7 years younger than me at the time.
You see, when Akshay was just 10 years old, he would walk up from the primary school campus to join our final-year calculus class. Around the same time, he was studying university-level physics.
He began university in earnest at the age of 13 – the same year that his chronological peers started high school. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree at 16, had a PhD at 20, and was a mathematics professor at 26.
Suffice it to say, he is hardwired differently from the rest of us. Even when he was a kid half our size, it was obvious to everyone that we were in the presence of a world-class mind.
Since Akshay won the Fields Medal, I’ve read a few articles about his work. It’s really quite straightforward – he has synthesised analytic number theory, homogeneous dynamics, topology and representation theory, which has resolved long-standing problems in areas such as the equidistribution of arithmetic objects.
You’ll probably be relieved to hear that this work is understandable to only a handful of people in the world. It is to the average person what psychoanalytic theory is to the average mollusc.
So I think it’s fair to say that most of us have the square root of bugger-all to learn from the work itself. But what I did find interesting was this description from a Business Standard article:
“Maths encompasses a wide variety of sub-disciplines, and few mathematicians are experts at more than one or two areas. Venkatesh, however, has always been an avid reader, delving into entirely different areas of mathematics purely for entertainment.”
Now, you might find it difficult to relate to the idea of reading mathematics “purely for entertainment”, but the broader principle is something we can all learn from.
Hear me out.
Apparently Akshay uses his diverse interests to “swiftly develop insights that can be applied to other branches of maths”. Where others have become stuck in a certain way of thinking about a problem, he introduces a completely leftfield perspective.
This would appear to be a good example of what is known as the Medici effect. Coined by the entrepreneur Frans Johannson, this term refers to the innovation that happens when disciplines intersect, such that ideas from one field are brought into another.
While most of us won’t ever make the kind of groundbreaking discoveries described by the Medici effect, there is a valuable lesson here.
Namely, curiosity is a catalyst for creativity.
This is why it’s so important for us to take an interest in the world beyond our own industry. Many people in advertising will tell you that they get their ideas from all sorts of seemingly unrelated places – books, films, art, history, people-watching, perhaps even maths. Without this broader perspective, the work turns in on itself and inevitably becomes conventional.
So you don’t need to be a genius to see things that others haven’t. Sometimes you just need to open your eyes – and your mind – to what else is out there.
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