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.