Performing well in math is generally a result of hard work, not innate skill


Recently, I read this article in The Atlantic about the myth of being innately “bad at math,” and how performing well in math is generally a result of hard work, not innate skill. By all accounts, I should have known this, but it only took that one semester to break down years of confidence in my aptitude. In the article, the author notes several patterns we see that reinforce this myth. The one that resonated most with me was as follows:

“The well-prepared kids, not realizing that the B students were simply unprepared, assume that they are ‘math people,’ and work hard in the future, cementing their advantage.”

And the B students (or in my case D student), well, they assume it’s about skill level and from that point forward it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

My mentor convinced me to apply to business school, and when he asked why I wouldn’t apply to Wharton, I said, “too quantitative.” I was scared. But he convinced me to apply, and after a crash course in Calculus, I learned that if I worked hard enough, indeed I could have success… even when my classmates were so-called quant jocks.

For me, it worked out, but for millions of kids in our education system, the ending isn’t so happy. Instead, parents determine at a very young age that a child has or does not have math skills. And, I would argue, they — we — do the same with reading. We decide that it’s one or the other, left or right brain. Instead, we can acknowledge our kids’ struggles with a particular subject, while continuing to encourage and remind them that a consistent effort can make a tremendous difference, but it takes perseverance.

What do I wish my teacher had done? I wish he had told me that I could do everything my classmates were doing, but I lacked the preparation before I ever stepped foot in his classroom.  If only he had instilled that confidence in me, that simple knowing that I could do better, who knows what else I might have tackled coming out of high school.


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