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I get really steamed when people tell me that I must be good at math because I love it so. This is not the case. If you had talked to any of my previous math teachers they would tell you different. I was always the slowest person in class to understand new concepts.
I remember telling my mother that I passed AP Calculus. The first thing she said to me, “We must have taken home the wrong child from the hospital.” This is another myth about loving math. That I have some superior mathematical ability because of genetics. This is also not the case. I flunked mathematics in fourth grade. Much of my progress came from grit, determination, and the experience of pleasure.
What I want to talk about today is how being the worst at mathematics may make you the best student.
The Story of the Worst Horse
When I was a child, my parents did not censor the books I read or the films I watched. My mother was always attracted to New Age spirituality and would take me to the “Psychic Eye Bookshop” in San Diego. Through this shop I discovered Buddhism for the first time as a young girl (still a big influence.) Later, I studied Buddhism academically as a religious studies minor at UC Irvine.
Pema Chödrön, Buddhist nun and author, tells the story of the worst horse in her book The Wisdom of No Escape.
In one of the Buddha’s Discourses, he talks about the four kinds of horses; the excellent horse, the good horse, the poor horse, and the really bad horse. The excellent horse, according to the sutra, moves before the whip even touches its back; just the shadow of the whip or the slightest sound from the driver is enough to make the horse move. The good horse runs at the lightest touch of the whip on its back. The poor horse doesn’t go until it feels pain, and the very bad horse doesn’t budge until the pain penetrates the marrow of its bones.
I like Chödrön’s interpretation of the story. The key thing is that it doesn’t matter which horse you are. It’s about discovering your true nature and working with that. She says, “Whatever our quality is, that’s our wealth and our beauty; that’s what other people respond to.” Even if you are the worst at mathematics in your class, you can launch yourself forward by working with your own personal goodness.
Start Where You Are
I can speak as someone who has had the experience of being the very bad horse. When I flunked fourth grade math, it wasn’t clear that I would ever learn mathematics. At this stage, I had more in common with my family than at any other time of my life. But, I saw what was good within myself.
I was a writer. I was able to transform my math problems into sentences that I could understand by switching letters for numbers. It didn’t seem likely to work, converting the numbers to letters, but I was able to see clearly for the first time. From that point, my love of math only grew even though my skill was still behind most of my peers.
One of the reasons why I love math is because it is so challenging. Even little wins seem like epic enhancements of my mathematical imagination. Slowly, and surely, I’ve gained skill. But it never comes easily.
You’ve got to stop thinking of mathematics as ability, talent, genetics, or intelligence. Shift your thoughts. Sit with what makes you uncomfortable and understand it. Focus on bringing your own personal good qualities to your study no matter where you start at. You can use your internal feelings to transform the way you think about math.
Yesterday, I ran into a very good thread covering this topic from a scientist named Kelsey (@advsinchem). I was hearing them talk about the very same issues which bother me. Don’t assume that someone who has gone to graduate school hasn’t worked hard to get through their program. They aren’t necessarily smarter than you, they are just more specialized.