I put myself on a self-imposed media diet while in China. Granted, it wasn’t terribly difficult considering China’s restrictions on American social media and search engines, but regardless, I left behind my daily news alerts in an effort to immerse myself in the “now.” I didn’t reach for my phone to read the paper or scan through social media posts while waiting in a line, stuck in traffic or really during any lag in my daily activities as I might at home. This diet was easier to adapt to than I could have ever imagined. I quickly realized that sitting and watching people and activities in a park or a crowded train station was just as satisfying as being on my phone. In fact, on the plane ride home, I almost dreaded landing and returning to my all-access pass to media. But, of course, there was no way to avoid it.
Once I was back in the swing of my NYC life, however, I realized just how much I enjoy that access. Reading news reports to learn about everything happening not only in this country but around the world makes me feel more connected to others, stimulates me intellectually, and even stimulates my curiosity. So, in those first 48 hours home, with access to everything, I assessed how to balance living in the now and appreciating everything in front of me, while also taking time to absorb what is happening in the greater world around me.
I received my first news alert standing in line while waiting to report my damaged luggage. It was the news of the death of a renowned mathematician. I admit, I had never heard of Maryam Mirzakhani prior to the article, but by all accounts, her work was quite spectacular. From an article in The New York Times I learned she was an Iranian mathematician, the only female and only Iranian to win the Fields Medal, the most prestigious honor in mathematics, and she died at the age of 40. In this same article, a colleague explained, “Not only did she solve many problems; in solving them, she developed tools that are now the bread and butter of people working in the field.” Another individual said that in addition to being mathematically talented, “she was a person who thought deeply from the ground up….That’s always the mark of someone who makes a permanent contribution.” In her obituary, Mirzakhani was celebrated for her remarkable professional feats. But I wanted to know more. I wanted to know who this mathematician was as a person, so I started digging.
It wasn’t hard to find more information on this math genius. But I did have to go through quite a bit of information to find pieces of her personal story. And I put together the puzzle. Teaching in front of the blackboard, she came to life, sharing her enthusiasm and a seemingly endless energy; yet away from the classroom, she was reserved and unassuming. She was described as humble and yet fiercely ambitious. Many described her reticence of media attention. She was a mathematician because she wanted to solve problems, not for the recognition of the media.
Her husband is also a mathematician—they met as graduate students in Boston; she was at Harvard and he at MIT. He uses a story of their first run together as an analogy of her work ethic and general approach to problems. He explains that he sprinted ahead of her while she kept a slow and steady pace. After 30 minutes of running, he had burned out and was ready to quit, but she continued running.
Mirzhakhani also had a young daughter. A New Yorker article explained how she would sprawl super-sized canvases of paper on her floor and sketch ideas, drawing diagrams and formulae, inspiring her daughter to proclaim, “Oh, Mommy is painting again!” Yes, she was an artist too.
Creating this new, fuller picture of Mirzakhani made her come to life for me. And it made me realize that, while the world and certainly the math community, may remember her as a genius, I will remember her as much more. As former NASA scientist Firouz Naderi tweeted, “A genius? Yes. But also a daughter, a mother and a wife.” Her success transcended her professional feats. She is more than a genius, the first woman to win math’s most prestigious prize, she was a woman who will be remembered by her friends and colleagues for her childlike enthusiasm, her endless optimism, her spirit, and her love for her family. This search to discover a woman behind her genius reminded me that while we may be remembered by the world for our professional successes, we are just as strongly remembered for our personal attributes—especially by those we care for most.
In China, without external media stimulation, my curiosity was spurred by life as it was happening in the moment, right in front of my eyes. And by staying in that moment (without the distraction of my phone), I learned about a new culture, discovered the similarities between myself and others, and hatched many, many new ideas I’m excited to explore and share with you over the next few weeks.
When I came home, I was happy to realize that my internal curiosity is not dependent on turning off my social media and news alerts. Back in the United States, with access to all kinds of media stimulation, I continued to follow my internal curiosity—the one that drove me to learn more about Mirzakhani. I predict she will be an inspiration to me for many years to come, as will my experiences in China. And so, perhaps, the answer is not turning off your phone, but rather finding a balance; choosing moments to explore online and choosing moments to be present.
Personally, I like the idea of choosing times during the day to devote to social media and the news. I spend time right after lunch and again around 8 pm. Outside of those two “appointments,” I try to stay off and instead focus on the now. For more ideas on how to develop that balance between presence and media, take a look at our article on unplugging!
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