From an early age we are often informed – even if inadvertently – of our “limitations.” These supposed limitations might be imposed upon us by family, teachers, or friends: though often we impose them upon ourselves – by comparing ourselves to our peers or by telling ourselves we are not progressing quickly enough. If we are told – or tell ourselves – enough times that we are not smart enough or good enough at a subject or sport, we are likely to believe it. And once we believe it, we tend to look for ways to prove it is true, turning that belief into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
There are some widespread, and unfortunate, misconceptions in the world of knowledge-acquisition, and many students choose to believe them. One of these is that mathematical ability is an inherent talent: some of us were divinely graced with it, and some of us simply have to settle for being good at other things. Myths like this become obstacles; but removing them will help clear the path to your success. Because the truth is that math can be learned and improved upon at any level.
Taking apart the myth
Where did this myth come from and why does it “stick”? We’ve all heard people say, “Math is really hard to master,” or, “Math just isn’t for everyone.” Perhaps your teachers have told you the former, and it has echoed every time you’ve picked up a pencil. Perhaps a friend has told you the latter to make you feel better about your struggle. Once you start repeating these statements, they attach, like parasites, to your imagination. And they repeat themselves, powerfully and discouragingly, every time you are confronted with a mathematical problem.
But let’s say we aren’t talking about math, but yummy food. If someone said to you, “Don’t even bother tasting that candy bar. You’re not good at eating chocolate,” you’d likely laugh… and then you’d take a big bite of that Hershey’s bar anyway. Because when you like something – whether it’s treats, or horseback riding, or studying your favorite subject, there is a sense of ease in your encounter with it from the very beginning. Once you are over the initial leaning threshold, you get consumed (pun intended) by the process, you enjoy yourself in the moment, and you don’t even recall the initial difficulties you’ve had learning the steps – your engagement is no longer a question of whether you “can”; it is a question of delighted, and sustained, attention. Rather than obstacles, difficult problems become sites at which you can explore, and put to use, all that you already know. You overcome them with your desire and drive to succeed… or, if we’re sticking with the candy bar analogy, you overcome them with your sweet tooth.
It’s convenient to maintain the view that “you’re not good” at a subject like math – particularly if you find math difficult. You let yourself off the hook even before beginning; you give up any and all responsibility about playing an active role in creating the outcome. And you also lose the opportunity for improvement, delight in finding solutions, and pride in your progress.
Take a moment and think of something you find pleasure and joy in. Maybe it’s swimming, reading, baking, dancing, or playing cards. Can you remember what it was like in the very beginning, the very first time you attempted this activity? Perhaps you were afraid of putting your head underwater; perhaps you couldn’t get the ingredients quite right in the dessert you tried to make, or the rules of the card game seemed absurdly complicated. Either way, you were probably nowhere near as accomplished at it as you are now (and you are probably nowhere near as accomplished at it now as you will be in ten years, assuming you keep returning to the practice). But probably you forgot all about your fear of your head going beneath the water when your brother splashed you, and the water-war began. Or baking that cake became infinitely easier when you were baking it for your best friend’s birthday and realized the cake was a gesture of love, rather than proof of your competence in the kitchen. Or you forgot how difficult the rules of the card-game were when your cousin told a joke mid-game that got everyone laughing. Focus on the times you’ve forgotten about the difficulties of the task at hand because you were too involved in the joy of it. And know that, believe it or not, this same feeling can happen as you’re working through a math problem.
So when you hear another person or a tiny voice inside your head say, “You’re just not good at math,” don’t let it have control of the monologue. Talk back to it. Tell it there’s no innateness to the subject – to any subject. Instead, make this your mantra (whether or not, at first, you mean it): “I like math. I like math. I like math. I am enjoying working through this problem.” Because if you believed the truth of the first voice, you just might begin to believe the truth of the second one.