Understanding labor of love through the life of Maryam Mirzakhani

Mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani's life was nothing short of exemplary, but the remarkable values that she lived with make her one of a kind.

“Life is not fair. I was born in a loving family. I was born with a smart head and had good people around me. I didn’t complain about how fair it is. Many people in this world don’t have these things. Why should I complain now?”

These are the words of the renowned mathematician, Maryam Mirzakhani, who passed away at the young age of 40 of recurrent cancer. Maryam is the first and the only woman mathematician, to have won the Fields Medal, considered an equivalent of the Nobel Prize.

The Fields Medal is awarded every four years, to persons who have made distinguished contributions to Mathematics. Maryam was honored for her groundbreaking work in studying the dynamics and geometries of curved surfaces. Born and raised in Tehran, Iran; Maryam showed exceptional brilliance in the subject during her middle school years, going on to complete a Ph.D. from Harvard University.

In terms of her achievements and her caliber as a mathematician, her life is nothing but exemplary. However, the more I read about Maryam, the more I see her as an artist, who simply loved what she did. To me, Maryam’s life is the definition of the labor of love, a quality that every creator must possess in order to produce the best work possible.

Through her values, she metamorphosed the idea of leading life with passion, becoming an example for the rest of the world to follow.

Maryam showed the world the value of enjoying the process. In her own words, she described herself as a “slow thinker”, who had the patience and the optimism to tackle the most challenging issues of theoretical mathematics.

Like a dreamer, she doodled over large white charts laid out onto the floor, scribbling formulae on the margins of her mathematical drawings.

The chart acted as her canvas and her ‘painting’ represented the beauty that she saw in solving a complex and time-consuming problem. Her drawings gave her a window to the possibilities that the geometric complexities represented, and with it the drive to find answers through them.

Another aspect of Maryam was her remarkable quality of being optimistically ambitious. She was undeterred in the face of tough mathematical problems, and found answers not just through sheer grit but also uncomplicated hope.

Her colleague, Alex Eskin, remembers, “She is very optimistic, and that’s infectious. When you work with her, you feel you have a much better chance of solving problems that at first seem hopeless.”

However, most importantly, Maryam held the simplest values in the highest regard as her way of life. She valued her family and her work, without caring much for distractions.

Her husband, Jan Vondrák reminisced this quality of hers, stating, “She didn’t worry about what people said. People criticized her. She really didn’t care. She knew what she wanted to do.”

Like a dreamer, she doodled over large white charts laid out onto the floor, scribbling formulae on the margins of her mathematical drawings.

Maryam’s fortitude and strong character were the reasons she continued working despite suffering from critical illness in her last years. She did not have answers when she began, but she had the uncompromising belief that she would figure them out eventually.

And that is the kind of force that can move mountains. As I discover more about Maryam, I believe that each one of us driven by a passion, can derive hope and strength from her life, and forge our way ahead.

Just the way Maryam did.