Admit your struggles, help others

My worst grades in K-12 and university were all for math classes. Algebra, trig, calc… they all made me feel stupid to a point of hopelessness. I got the basics, but as soon as things started getting abstract, I lost my grip.

I tried and tried and tried, but none of it clicked into place.

I’ve never been one to give up easily on solving problems, but I gave up on math and that steered me away from scientific fields and programming, even though I had interests in both. I got excited about the prospect of working in physics or engineering, but a little voice would always echo out from the corner of my mind telling me:

“You can’t, because you don’t have the math for it, because you’re stupid.”

I never stopped reading about science though. If I couldn’t be a physicist, I would enjoy what I could from the periphery. Past articles and topical books, I also read biographies of scientists, one of which ended up changing my life.

Richard Feynman

I was well into my 20s when I picked up a copy of “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”, which is actually more of a collection of transcribed stories than a biography. Feynman was an interesting personality, so different from any other scientist I’d read about. I snapped up every book I could find about him.

He worked on the Manhattan Project and built the foundation for a wide swath of modern quantum physics. He also played bongos, experimented with LSD, and sat around strip clubs drawing sketches of dancers.

Past all that, his approach to math was completely new to me. He intuited and guesstimated, refining once he was in range of the answer. It was a weirdly physical approach to math that lined up with the way my grandfather (a country carpenter with a 5th grade education) worked out building a house.

I focused my reading and found out it’s the way a lot of mathematicians and physicists approach math, I’d just never put it together before. The New Math I grew up on and that was hammered into my head simply didn’t fit the way my brain worked.

Feynman’s method of estimation and refinement did.

So happy I could cry

Suddenly, a new world felt open to me. I threw myself into Khan Academy’s math courses, starting with the 1st grade level and blazing through each into college level calculus.

“It makes sense! It makes sense! It makes sense!!!!!!!”

With my new toolset, I could make sense of all of it and swelled with a new confidence. I started doing math problems for fun, filling notebooks with tiny scribbled numbers.

I also dove into programming, pivoting my career as a sysadmin towards automation and orchestration. It was frustrating at first, not because it was difficult, but because learning to program didn’t require nearly the level of math I thought I needed to get started. Fear of math had been an unnecessary roadblock.

Sharing your struggles is important

No one likes to admit they had a hard time learning something, that they struggled and felt dumb or less-than. If you care about helping others though, sharing those experiences is important.

For much of my life, I thought understanding math was binary, you either got it or you didn’t, because that’s what I saw in everyone around me. It’s what I heard from math teachers, some of whom got frustrated by my lack of understanding.

That all changed when I learned people I admired faced similar challenges and developed workarounds that worked for the way they thought. I’m no mathemagician, but gaining hope from knowing that I wasn’t alone allowed me to build a competency I would have otherwise gone my entire life without having.

Right now, there’s someone out there who is struggling to understand some concept that you also struggled with. They’re feeling hopeless and dumb. They don’t just need a numbered “how-to” or explainer. They need a preamble that says “Hey, I had a hard time with this, and this is how I learned it.”, not only because your method might work for them too, but because exposing your vulnerability opens the doors of possibility for them.

If you’ve never written anything or put yourself out in the open in a similar way because you think “There’s already 1000 blog posts explaining this.” or “Who cares about my perspective?” Know this: Your perspective matters. Your struggles matter. They may not matter to everyone, but they’ll impact someone.

So write and share and be honest. Sitting in a high tower, pretending that everything you know came easily helps no one. There’s someone out there who will only ever understand data structures or synchronicity or whatever it is you know (particularly if you struggled with the idea) unless you explain it to them the way you understand it.


Originally published at Chris Dodds.