You Don’t Need Math

Add maths

A math major who turned out to be not very good as a mathematician, looks back at his studies and nevertheless finds some lessons he learned that have “nothing to do with numbers and everything to do with life”. He offers some nuggets in this essay that will apply regardless of the subjects you studied.

1. I expect to not get the answer on the first try.

It might sound pessimistic, but I think it’s pragmatic. I was rarely discouraged, because I never expected a quick win. And if I was correct on the first stab, I was pleasantly surprised. I became well-rehearsed in failed attempts, and so much more patient as a result.

I learned that lesson very early in my mathematical studies and it was one I tried to convey to my students when I started teaching.

Accepting that things don’t always work right the first time leads directly to this.

2. I can tolerate ungodly amounts of frustration.

Writer’s block has nothing on a tough math problem, and I’ve suffered through both. Writer’s block usually boils down to you thinking you’re not good enough. With math, it feels like the universe is mocking your ineptitude.

Of course math concepts can be frustrating. But there are plenty of other fields, like writing, that have their own unique stumbling blocks. Plenty of other endeavors, academic and not, have mocked my ineptitude over my life.

But frustration is not fun for anyone. Which leads into his third lesson learned.

3. I attack problems from multiple angles

Studying math was like maintaining a toolbox. Each time I learned something new, into the big red box that newfound knowledge went. Who knew when it would be useful? Long-buried methods could be just the socket wrench I needed later on.

Again, any field of study has it’s own set of tools. And any problem worth solving requires looking at the issues from different points of view. People who are successful at anything have assembled their tools and have learned how to try different ones when confronted with a new problem.

Again, an approach we need to be teaching our students, regardless of the subject on the syllabus.

The former mathematician has a few other lessons and more to say if you care to read the whole essay. But this for me is the bottom line:

Six years into my career, I can say that being comfortable with numbers and data has been useful, but what has proved invaluable are the qualities that math imbued in me?—?patience, attention to detail, humility and persistence. That was the true reward.

So, should every student take a rigorous program of mathematics in order to gain these qualities? Of course not.

Learning to write, mastering the French horn, creating the sound design for a play, repairing an automobile, all have answers that elude solution on the first try, create frustration, and require multiple approaches to succeed.

With the right teachers, students can learn patience, attention to detail, humility, and patience by working on the skills necessary for whatever interests them.


The image Add math by Chee Meng Au Yong was posted to Flickr and is used under a Creative Commons license.

Make Glorious, Amazing Mistakes

Some wonderful inspiration for the new year from a 2012 graduation address by author Neil Gaiman:

I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes.

Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re Doing Something.

So that’s my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life.

Whatever it is you’re scared of doing, Do it.

Make your mistakes, next year and forever.

Although the talk is great, it’s hard to recommend the book since the graphic design distracts from the message. Watch the video instead.

Changing Your Mind is Smart

Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com, is one of those very successful innovators we hold up as examples to our future leaders. He has certainly made mistakes but is also right a lot of the time.

And Bezos has noticed something about other people who make the right decisions most of the time: they are “people who often changed their minds”.

He’s observed that the smartest people are constantly revising their understanding, reconsidering a problem they thought they’d already solved. They’re open to new points of view, new information, new ideas, contradictions, and challenges to their own way of thinking.

So where do those “smartest people” learn those skills? It’s not what we do in school.

Time to Grow Up

On the eve of our 235th birthday, a columnist for the Post business section tells the USA it’s about time to realize we could learn a few things from our elder nations.

Government as the problem? “Government” is not the problem, “bad government” is the problem. There is an enormous distinction between the two.

Being surrounded by two oceans – and being so powerful since WWII – has allowed you to become too insular. Your “not-invented-here” attitude has led you to miss many other good ideas. Have a look around the world and see what other countries are doing right:

Canada managed to come through the financial crisis unscathed – what was it about its banking regulations that protected it? Why is Finland the best country for education? Why does Australia have the world’s lowest jobless rate? How are Germany’s highways so darned good? What is it about Japan’s health-care system that has made it the best in the world? Norway has the highest adult literacy level and is often ranked as having the best quality of life; what is it doing right? And Singapore has the highest per-capita GDP and one of the recession’s fastest-growing economies. Why?

It sure wouldn’t hurt you to put your pride aside and take a few lessons from the best ideas in the world.

He has many other examples of ways we as a society need to grow up and take responsibility for maturely addressing our problems.

Unfortunately most of the politicians out touting their patriotism this weekend will pay attention to none of it.

Nobel Quality Advice

On a recent edition of the wonderful 60-Second Science podcast, they played a short clip from a talk by 2007 Nobel Prize recipient Oliver Smithies. He was speaking to a group of students, reflecting on learning and enjoying what you do.

Here’s my osmotic pressure measurement. And I was rather proud of this method. And I published it with great delight. This paper has a record, you know: nobody ever quoted it. And nobody ever used the method again. And I didn’t use the method again. So I have to ask you, what was the point of it all? Well, the answer is really a very serious answer.

The answer is I learned to do good science. But it didn’t matter what I did when I was learning to do good science. So it doesn’t matter what you do when you’re doing a thesis, you see. But it’s very important that you enjoy it. Because if you don’t enjoy it, you won’t do a good job and you won’t learn science.

So all of this comes around to the fact that if you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, ask your advisors to let you do something else. And if your advisor won’t do that, there’s another solution: change your advisor.

Excellent advise, whether you’re writing a thesis or involved in any other learning.