Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Should I give up on Math? A Quora question

I read this question in Quora.

My family and my teachers keep discouraging me. They say I have no math talent, I just get good grades because I work hard, I should focus on humanities instead of math, I'm forcing it too much, etc. My teachers want me to study philology and my aunt told me that math is my ultimate weakness.
But I love math. It's the thing I love the most, I'm fascinated by it's abstraction and beauty. I can understand new concepts quickly, school problems are easy to me (I'm an 8th grader) I'm just struggling with harder problems. Sometimes I think for days about a problem.
People around me keep saying I should understand that math is not for me. Should I give up on it?

I couldn't stop myself from writing an answer to this.

It is like reading the story of my life. You should read this and take heart.

Let me start from the beginning. In India, doing Math is about doing calculations fast. For example, a guy in my family knew multiplication tables till 19x19. This amazing power earned him the much sought after title of being the smartest kid in the family. When people around him told him he was "great" at Math, he became super confident about his prowess and went on to become a success in his life. Conversely, my mother was always told that she sucked at Math which made her firmly believe that she was dumb and meant to do lesser things  which in her definition, is everything else that is not Math. 

That's the story of how my life became a living hell when I was little . My mother became paranoid that I would inherit her "dumb Math genes" and made sure I knew multiplication (till 20x20, of course) before I went into first grade. Every time I visited a relative's house, I would be asked to solve Math problems until I got something wrong. It was a pity because I secretly liked Math and thought it was neat, but it felt unnatural to like something that everyone told me I was bad at. I vehemently hated being judged based on some arbitrary time limit within which I "had" to solve a problem. 

When given a problem I would immediately jump to figure out which is the fastest way of solving it, realize that I was losing time, become distinctly aware that there were at least four people looking at me with smug grins, then panic that I hadn't figured out the shortest way yet  and panic more. By then, everything would go down the crapper and I would have been pronounced dumb. My mother would glare/yell at me while some woman in the crowd used to think it was appropriate to say "Oh, don't worry. We will get you married to a guy who is good at Math/is from IIT". It set off a lifelong aversion of my family, family gatherings and as a bonus, panic attacks well into my college years.

Everybody in my family, in literally every family gathering, told me I sucked at Math and that I got good grades just because I worked hard. In Engineering, I was trying to prepare for "CAT" which is an exam that people in India take to get into prestigious B-schools. A lot about that exam prep reminded me of the oh-so-horrible mental Math tricks that I had to learn growing up and which I hated with every fibre in my body. I would not even look at the "data interpretation" section and proceed to the verbal section, because for about 18 years people had told me that I was great at "humanities stuff" and not Math. 

Then, I started working at this really great place. At my work, I ended up doing a lot of data analysis in a real world context. Moreover, there was no time limit, no competition and nothing that made me think that the world would end if I didn't solve a problem under a minute. This was the first time I figured out how much I loved data and how elegant it was. It made me realize that all the aspects of Math that had been beaten into my head as important things were so arbitrary and unnecessary. It was liberating just to use Excel for the dreaded and revered 19x19 and still be excited about the bigger picture that I got to solve. It was fun and a matter of honor just to be in a zone where I could operate with so much comfort.

Two years into doing this kind of data analysis, I decided that I should do a PhD in using data to solve real world problems. My field of study is at the cusp of Marketing, Applied Economics, a lot of Econometrics/Statistics and some Machine Learning thrown in for fun.

Every time I write up a white board full of equations, I step back and feel good to see how far I have come along, from my relatives' gloomy predictions. I wish that I can go back in time and tell this to the 8th grader who cried herself to sleep because some moron in her family told her she can't do Math. As a famous T-shirt caption says, great things begin at the end of the comfort zone. It is all about exploring the bleeding edge in your own time or with someone who will not judge you for it being beyond your comfort zone.

Also, you should read this: A mathematician's lament-https://www.maa.org/external_arc...