Do the work

Matt Grote
Sep 10, 2017 · 5 min read

Whenever people find out I teach math, they always tell me the last math class they took and how much they disliked it. Without fail. There are two kinds of responses: honest ones, where people tell me how much they hated the 8 am math class they took in college, and insecure ones, where people tell me they loved calc 1 but ‘just never followed up with it.’

Telling me you liked calc is like telling Dumbledore you know a few card tricks. Which is arrogant to say, but fair. For example, here is an excerpt from page 30 of my thesis, “Representations of PSL(2,n) via Projectors”:

Bonus points if you can spot the typo!

But what nobody seems keen on is admitting the reason everyone hates math. Math is hard. It’s really, really hard.

I delight in springing on people that my day job is working as an adjunct professor at a few different colleges, but what a lot of people don’t know is that I was placed in special ed classes until the 7th grade. I read very slowly and couldn’t get my times tables down, so I was banished to the trailers in the second grade and never allowed to return.

At first the trailers were a lot of fun because I didn’t belong there. We spent a week on the word ‘laugh’ because it has letters in all the wrong places. One time I got a lollipop for putting away the maracas quietly (which was a feat, to be fair). But the only lesson I really learned there is what it means to be bored.

I am chronically bored. I am bored by things I love dearly. I got bored watching Jurassic World because by act 3 I was like, we get it, it’s dinosaurs.

The only cure for boredom is curiosity. I am sated only in pushing the boundaries of my surroundings. I have wandered through my life like the world is a museum and I’m trying to touch all of the paintings.

The surest way to suffocate curiosity is to tell someone they are too stupid to understand the answers to their own questions. The trailers were where curiosity went to die. They are where I was told I wasn’t ready to try algebra (my masters is in algebra/number theory) and that ‘paragraphs might be a little hard for [me], let’s try sentences first.’

So how did I escape? One day a man with a leather whip snatched me up and replaced me with a bag of sand, triggering a series of traps, narrowly escaping the boulder. No, I switched school districts and they agreed to place me in basic classes. They argued, yeah, this kid definitely doesn’t have a learning disorder, but he’s been in the trailers too long to catch up. He’s got trailer brain.

In high school I gave up my elective credits to take extra math classes. I won a national short story contest in the 9th grade and petitioned the school to let me take AP English. (It was Brigham Young University’s 9–12th grade science fiction short story competition, but still, national.) And when I graduated college a few years later summa cum laude, I took home a BA in Creative Writing and a BS in Mathematics.

How did trailer brain end up writing a masters thesis with the Beyonce of algebraic geometry? I worked my ass off.

Left, Fedor Bogomolov, my thesis advisor. A famous mathematician who allowed me to annoy him. Right, Lily, my boyfriend’s dog who I think looks like Fedor.

In my mind, I have always separated talent and skill. Talent is innate and unearned. Skill is practiced and trained. Both are expressions of competence. So it is nice to be called talented, because it means that I appear effortless. But here is the truth: I am almost completely untalented. I am skilled. I do the work.

I have two talents, just two. One, I have great hair, very talented hair. Push it to either side and it’s styled for the day. Two, I can factor quadratics without thinking about it. No idea how or why. End of list.

Watching me figure things out is like watching a bird use a remote control. I step all over the buttons, get bored because I can’t turn on the TV, fly away, come back, cock my head to one side, yell really loudly, and then finally realize I need to use my beak, not my feet. Then I poop. (This metaphor got away from me, sorry.) I don’t always figure out the best answer and I rarely get there quickly, but I don’t quit.

Of the inane ways I reduce myself, one of the dumbest is to judge myself for working for skill instead of having genius, having talent. There was a 16 year old kid in all of my classes in grad school. He was taking 5 PhD classes a semester (normal is 3) and absolutely destroying every one of them. Each lecture I’d have to listen as he provided commentary with the confident smugness of Kang the Conqueror, come back from the year 3000 to tell Mr. Fantastic how dumb he looks in spandex. He had also not learned how to shave yet. Privately I gloated on this point, my north star for lording some manner of superiority over this cartoon-villain-origin-story of a child. (Full disclosure, I am actually horrible at shaving myself. I meant ‘shaving, myself.’ Eh, either reading works.)

There is only one thing to do when faced with superior talent: the work. I mean learn the skills. I believe every skill can be learned provided sufficient time and effort. (Money, too, but money can be earned with time and effort.) It’s how I got a blue belt in BJJ even though I’m so clumsy I consistently walk into walls. It’s how I got shows at PIT and UCB even though their training program shot me down. It’s how I ended up a college professor even though I’m a dumb dumb trailer brain.

So whenever my mind dwells on what I can’t do and haven’t, I frown into brownie, whine at my boyfriend about how incompetent I am, and then I get on my fucking feet and work. I figure it out, and if I can’t make things work the way they’re supposed to, I figure out how to make things work for me. No matter how many pecks it takes.

Because here is a fun secret: I never memorized my times tables. I practiced multiplying so quickly no one could tell the difference.

Matt Grote

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On twitter @feMANism, email mgrote4[gmail]

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