Very often I hear that phrase from my peers when I mention what I’m studying (physics), and it breaks my heart. Far too often I hear, “I wish I was good at math/science/etc.,” as if it’s something that someone is just good at, like you come out of the womb, notebook in hand, having completed a series of complex math problems. So for those of you who have some sort of interest in mathematics or the sciences, but feel like you just don’t have the brain for it, let me dispel a few myths for you. It is also worth keeping in mind that this can apply to other fields and abilities as well.
There is no “math brain”
Very few people come into this world and just “get it” when it comes to math and science. Moreover, no one is born with an innate knowledge of these fields. We’re born screaming, hardly able to grasp a pencil, unable to feed ourselves, and barely conscious. Mathematics is a logically consistent language that we can use to describe the universe. Doing mathematics is a practiced skill, and it takes a great deal of time and focus in order to be proficient at it. Mathematicians and scientists are usually people who spend much of their time doing little else. They are not, as you may believe, individuals who just clicked intellectually with the field. But still, you may protest, you know you’re just not meant to be good at math! No matter how many times someone explains it to you, you don’t get it! What about the other students in the same classes as you that are doing much better? How could you do so poorly unless you just are not good at this?
The answer is that math is just hard. It is a very difficult skill to pick up. It is not something that you can understand immediately after you attend a lecture. All of those students that are doing well? It’s just as hard for them as it is for you. The difference between you and them, is that, when it comes to mathematics, you are lazy. Now hold on, before you assume that I am trying to degrade you in any way, I am not. There is no shame in being lazy at certain things; everyone is lazy at some point or another. I have ADD and I am incredibly lazy. I’m about to take calc I for the third time (I passed the second time, but I need a higher grade to graduate), and that’s fine. This is not an insult, I am simply stating the fact that you most likely are not putting in the work necessary to succeed at mathematics. Everyone, everyone, everyone is bad at math at some point, but they succeeded because they did the work necessary to succeed. Everyone is lazy. You just have to decide where in your life you will chose to be lazy, and where you will choose to not be. People who excel at math, I can guarantee, have had to sacrifice success in some other skill-set.
So then, why are you lazy with math? I’ll start with the most straightforward reason: You don’t care for math; it doesn’t interest you. That is fine, everyone has something they don’t care to learn about. I don’t care much for politics, and I’m not good at it because I don’t care to be good at it. In which case, then you should just be honest with yourself and say that you don’t care about math enough to excel at it. Okay, that’s alright, people have different interests. I think part of this is borne out of the idea that if you aren’t good at math (or science) then you’re stupid. I’ll return to this, but nothing could be further from the truth.
Another possibility is that you have been convinced that there is a “math brain” or a “math person”. Imagine a student who excels in all of her classes, and then takes a math class in which her grade is lower in comparison to her other classes. This person may then conclude that they just “don’t have the brain for it,” having never been taught that mathematics is intrinsically difficult to grasp. She might then quit, having robbed herself of a subject she might otherwise have found fascinating and compelling.
Now, what if you had a bad teacher? I think this can make a difference in any subject, and with all of the different ways that people learn, a flexible teacher can make all the difference. One of my calculus professors (who sadly passed less than a month ago, as I write this) was notorious for his difficulty. Other professors in the same department are much easier to take classes with. Perhaps a teacher or professor is giving you homework that is too far removed from the lectures or study material. Doing homework will be a challenge if you have no idea what you’re doing. Now don’t simply blame your instructor if you are failing a class. Observe how your peers are doing in the same course, and maybe if everyone is trying very hard but not doing so well, then maybe this is not the professor for you.
Now what about students with learning disabilities? For example, I have a history of doing poorly in math classes, and I have ADD. Does that mean I’m not a math person? No. My attention deficit does not directly effect my mathematical abilities, but it does impact my work ethic. I’m not bad at math because I don’t have a math brain; I’m bad at math because I can’t sit still for ten minutes. Though I can’t speak for every form of learning disability, take this into consideration. Ultimately that’s a sort of academic hurdle you have to jump over at an individual level. Still, assume other factors may be at play before you throw in the towel on difficult subjects.
Let’s pretend for sake of argument that there is a math brain. Some people are blessed with mathematical ability, and some are not. Now let’s pretend that you are not one of the mathematically inclined. I do not think that this means that you should give up doing what you love. You may indeed have to work twice as hard to get where everyone else is, but you should keep trying. Always keep trying. Personally, I’d be much more impressed with someone who was once a dunce become expert, than someone who understood a topic right off the bat.
Math is a language
What about child prodigies who can do complex mathematics when I was learning basic multiplication? Before you let these type of people bring you down, remember that they are incredible for a reason: they are rare. Most people don’t begin doing well at mathematics at such a young age.
Take Albert Einstein, for example. First of all – and counterintuitive to this article – I’m going to debunk the meme that he was not good at math. Of course he was, he discovered relativity. How was he so good at math? For the same reason you excel at speaking your native tongue: it was introduced to you at a young age. Language is complicated and convoluted, and adults have trouble learning new languages. Toddlers, not so much. The earlier one is introduced to a language, the easier it is for them to excel at it. The way our brain filters and absorbs information changes throughout our lives.
Einstein was introduced to algebra at an earlier age by his family, as well as sent to more advanced primary education. This allowed him to excel in physics throughout his life.
Every once in awhile, you’ll hear perhaps discouraging stories of grade school age children who succeed at high level calculus courses. Do they just get it? I would be lying if I said that hearing about children with a university level education didn’t make me profoundly jealous, however there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Like I said, these people are indeed rare. You’ll also notice that these people have a strength of memory that is beyond comprehension. In fact, you’ll even find that many of these prodigies can speak multiple languages.
And that, my friends, is the point. Math is a language. It is the language of logic; the language that our reality speaks. And like language, math has arbitrary and definitional aspects. Below is the fundamental theorem of calculus, of which there are two parts (source):
Let f be a function which is continuous on the interval [a, b].
- Let F be an indefinite integral or antiderivative of f. Then
- The function
is an indefinite integral or antiderivative of f. That is, A'(x) = f(x)
It doesn’t matter what sort of super-genius you are, you still have to read a book (or some other source of information) to find out what this all means. You still have to learn what the language means, what the symbols are, how to determine a derivative. You can’t just do this. You have to learn it. These methods were devised because they (usually) were called for by study. For example, Newton invented calculus to help with his study of planet’s orbits. This is not intuitive. Not to any human mind. A math brain implies something is intuitive, and the fact is that this isn’t intuitive. You have to learn it, regardless of your intellect.
Being mathematically inclined is not necessarily synonymous with genius
Genius and brilliance is present in every field of study; STEM fields do not have a monopoly on intelligence. Here I think lies the source of the problem. Mathematical ability is associated with intellect, so when people fail to succeed in mathematics, they assume they are inherently flawed, that they don’t have the intellect necessary for the skill.
Consider Stephen Hawking, widely considered one of the most successful theorists of our time. In 2004, he was asked directly what is IQ was. In response, he said this:
“I have no idea. People who boast about their I.Q. are losers.”
It isn’t about being smart, it’s about doing the work. I imagine you could ask almost any scientist or mathematician and they would say the same thing. Do not assume that something cannot be done by you because it was not meant to be done by you. It is about hard work.
Einstein worked for a decade on his theory of relativity. Hawking lives an entirely mental life, having been completely disabled. Tesla slept two hours a night. Newton had no social life and never married. These people have an obsession. What needs to happen in life is you find your obsession, the thing that makes you tick, whatever that may be – Art, science, making funny youtube videos, whatever – and pursue it. Obstacles will make your success even more wonderful.
And do not ever let someone tell you that you are too dumb to do something.
Sorry I couldn’t help myself.
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