Have you ever had an idea that no one else has had before? An original thought that you were the first to come up with. An overlooked detail only you noticed. I ask because I recently rewatched A Beautiful Mind, and it brought back a specific memory from my college days.
The Wealth of Nash-ions
At the start of that film, John Nash is a young man attempting to make a name for himself. He despises attending lectures because he believes repeating memorized lessons on the discoveries of his predecessors serves only to dull his brain and keep him from coming up with his own original thought. After receiving a lot of criticism from his professors and peers for his unorthodox approach to learning, he is finally vindicated when he comes up with his own economic theory that contradicts centuries of economic theories starting with the great Adam Smith. He launches a brilliant career on the strength of that theory.
That got me thinking about the way we are taught as children. We don’t gain knowledge the way that the greatest minds in history did. Did Sir Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein simply memorize facts and repeat them to get a good grade on tests? No! They went against established principles and questioned everything until they came up with their own theories, which proved to be remarkably correct. It takes courage to stand out and think differently.
Marching to a Different Tune
I wouldn’t put myself in the same category of intellect as Nash, Newton, or Einstein, but I have always had an inquisitive mind, so at least I share that much in common with them. Near the end of my time at college, I took my last English class, which was very advanced. Most of the course consisted of reading a book called Middlemarch by George Eliot. Senioritis had set in pretty hard, so my work ethic was less than stellar through most of the course when it came to doing the reading on time. This was detrimental to my grade because we were quizzed each week on the assigned chapters, and I kept failing to read to the end.
But the real test came at the end of the semester. We had a 20-page final paper coming due that would account for the vast majority of our overall grade for the class. The professor challenged us to position ourselves in the literary community or, in other words, to say something about Middlemarch that no other academic had ever before said about it. If we just agreed with what other experts were saying, we would assuredly get a C on our final paper. The only way to get an A would be to think outside the box.
I racked my brain to come up with something unique to say about the main character or the story at large, but nothing ever came. My heart just wasn’t in it. Just days before the paper was due, I hadn’t even started on it, but that’s when inspiration struck. The only character who I was interested in at all was a preacher who wants to be rid of a man who is threatening to blackmail him for his past misdeeds that he’s tried to keep quiet. One day, the man falls ill, and the preacher decides to wait to call a doctor instead of helping him right away. Because of his inaction, the man dies shortly after. In all the literature I had read, I had only heard experts describe the preacher as deluded into believing he was serving God by deceiving people and protecting himself. But I realized that they were only seeing part of the story. He wasn’t convinced he was serving God; he was convinced he was acting as God. He thought that everything he was doing was moral because he had put himself in the role of God, deciding who lives and who dies. I had my hook.
I stayed up all night writing my paper the day before it was due. I turned it in the next morning, and I never heard back from the professor about exactly what he thought of it, but I did see my final grade for the class: A. That said it all.
Bringing Something New to the Table
Wouldn’t it be interesting if it was a requirement to graduate or to receive some other honor that the recipient must have their own original thought on the subject they are studying? It’s not enough to agree with the experts. They must use their mind to understand the source of the wisdom of their predecessors and expand upon it. I don’t see any problem with agreeing with great figures from the past when they were right. I mean, the U.S. Constitution doesn’t need to be scrapped because of a few minor flaws. But I like being open to the idea of walking in their footsteps and analyzing the thought processes that went into their conclusions, not just studying the conclusions themselves. There is a lot of insight to be gleaned in this way as to the reasons why things work as they do.
I don’t consider all the literary experts on Middlemarch to be wrong and only myself right. I just think I have something to contribute to their ideas – a fresh perspective. I also doubt John Nash thought every one of Adam Smith’s theories were incorrect when he managed to improve upon some of them. The point is not to prove others wrong, but to join the ranks of the experts and consider them your peers by having something of note to bring to the table. It’s not enough to feast on the buffet of knowledge. We also need to bring our own potluck dish.
So, have you ever had an idea that no one else has had before? I’d be interested to hear it, if you’d like to share.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
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