Becoming a Math Person

A wise man can learn more from a foolish question than a fool can learn from a wise answer.
— Bruce Lee

For those of you who think "math people" have it any easier, I suggest you read this phenomenal Nautilus (my favorite magazine) article "What Does Any of This Have To Do with Physics?" by Bob Henderson. He writes of the mental struggles that all aspiring physicists feel as they brawl with Jackson's E&M and the unattainable standards set by Richard Feynman decades ago. The truth is that the complexities of mathematics can never be avoided. Being skilled in any subject, not just mathematics ensures that you just find more challenging problems to work on. However, there is a little-known secret about mathematics, there is no so-called math gene. 

People aren't born skilled in mathematics any more than Arnold Schwarzenegger was born a body builder. Skills must be earned through hard work. Those that seem to be gifted in an area likely developed the basics at an earlier age even if the skills were only tangential. It's rather unfortunate that us outsiders try to pick up this skill later in life without any fine motor patterns or critical thinking skills and expect to be "naturally" good at this thing. We assume there must be this mystical gene because the average person believes they're above average. So, if I believe I'm above average and I don't have this skill, then it must be something that fate has hidden from me. We don't want to accept responsibility for our mediocrity. This is a common theme for math anxiety: our feelings. 

"I can definitively say that my greatest lesson through all my academic years was learning how to learn. "

When I first started tutoring I sincerely believed that I could rattle off various platitudes that would motivate people to simply try harder, which would easily solve their issues. It became quite obvious how naive I was. My approach has since evolved to becoming the student of the tutee. In other words, I have the tutee verbalize each step, which forces them to consciously assess their understanding and allows me to find their misconceptions. Hell, this process is perfectly applicable to any subject, but there is this absurd stigma around the STEM subjects. The greatest change during these tutoring sessions occurs when the tutees understand the process to teach themselves. I can definitively say that my greatest lesson through all my academic years was learning how to learn.

My undergraduate years were absolutely horrible. I was the worst student. It wasn't that I didn't try and it wasn't that I didn't put in the time. I simply had no concept of how to study and the effort it took to truly understand something. I knew enough to regurgitate solutions, but I didn't understand well enough to apply the concepts to new problems. There is a clear difference between knowing and understanding. And, I can assure anyone that feels as though they aren't as skilled as other that those others probably had a headstart or they have better study skills aren't. Check out this podcast by Hunter Maats and Katie O'Brien if you'd like more insight into math anxiety and an approach to learning and this free course on Learning How to Learn

Before you concede, first learn how to learn, learn how to succeed, then give it a legitimate try. There is no such thing as failing. There is only quitting, learning, and succeeding; each is a choice.