On Becoming

Every subject has a secret language

On break from the basement cleanup…
Worm Burner’s Friend: What’d you do on the bus ride up? (to a school-sponsored rock-climbing trip)
Worm Burner: Recreational math.

Neither the friend nor I questioned this in any way. This is the boy who derived the equation for the volume of a sphere from triple integral first principles for fun on his iPad on the plane back from a college tour trip. This is the kid who’s applying to Caltech because they sent him an envelope covered in math.

This morning, on the way to the SAT math subject test (which he’s decided to ace because the “average” score for Caltech entrants is a perfect score), I asked him what recreational math he did on the bus trip. Every subject has a secret language — not just terminology but phraseology and concepts — and it’s a particular pleasure of mine to share the math-and-physics secret language (and avid interest) with Son#2. (Son#1 and I share the Novelist’s Language, while Son#3 and I share the Emotional-Social-Creative Language.)

WB’s been watching a 30 hour tutorial on General Relativity and there was one section where the professor and his lightning chalkboard derivations were… shall we say, unclear. WB wanted to derive it himself because of course. But no WiFi on the bus so… he did it from memory.

As one does.

If one has an unusually math-adept brain.

I’ve known from the time this kid was 18mos old and counting things… backwards. From the day he was 3 and observed the 3x3 grid of squares on the garage door and said there were 8 ways you could count to three on it… this kid had A Thing for the maths. I don’t know if he’ll get into Caltech, but if they take a pass on him, they’ll be the worse for it. I’ve explained to him the long odds on that (and the other highly competitive colleges he’s applying to).

But I keep telling him (and I believe this) — it doesn’t matter where you go to college. What matters is what you do with your brain and your talents and your time. What counts is trying new things and going hard after the thing you love — the thing you’re good at. You need to understand who you are as a person and how you fit in the world and what you value — then using all the gifts you have to make it a better place.

In the throes of the college application process, it’s tough to remember that this step isn’t the critical one society has made it out to be. The critical step happens every day, on the bus, on the plane, in your free time and in your work time — working hard to Practice Becoming the person you’re capable of being.

Do that, and the rest will follow.