A few weeks ago, I switched my major from Psychology to Math. A very big shift, indeed. Here are some of the biggest lessons I’ve learned so far. They have far more to do with life than they do with math.
1. It’s Okay to Be Wrong
How many times do we expect ourselves and others to get everything right?
It’s so easy to classify things as a win or loss based on whether we reached the ‘right’ solution or not. Unfortunately, that’s not how life works. Life is a process of learning without a beginning or an end. The most knowledgeable and skilled people still have so much to learn.
They haven’t reached an end, they haven’t gotten the problem of life correct. They’re still working towards an answer.
A lot of the math I’ve taken is graded on partial credit. There are problems that I come nowhere near finding an answer, but I know how to start and that counts for something. Our pursuit of perfect may lead us to improve our skills, but it shouldn’t rule out the “wrong” answers as invalid.
We all want to make good decisions, be good people, and live a life we enjoy. It’s up to us to accept and embrace the problems we get wrong during the process.
Try to acknowledge the mistakes you’ve made without feeling guilty for them. You did the best you could at that time.
2. It’s Just Anxiety You’re Feeling
There is a certain pit that seems to form in my stomach on the day of a big quiz or test. Even if I believe I’m more prepared than ever, the feeling still arises. Sometimes, I let myself get caught up in this anxiety. Why? It’s just one test, 50 minutes, it has no bearing on my worth as a person.
My anxiety in these moments has shown me that the world I perceive doesn’t always align with the truth. This realization has helped me keep a slightly larger perspective over the past few weeks. I’m by no means the best at handling anxiety (I still get swept up in momentary occurrences quite a bit), but it helps to remind myself that one bad test doesn’t define anyone.
We all create our own perceptions of every situation. Ask yourself: Am I making this situation more difficult than it could be?
3. Being the Best Might Not Be for Me
Over the years, it has been really easy to feel like I let myself down and ruined my hard work when I got a bad grade. I’m gradually starting to see my fear isn’t true. I still hope to get good grades, but I also don’t want to be beholden to them. For many years, grades were a status symbol, something I held on to tightly and hoped others would notice. I’m starting to release that grasp and fill it with things I find more fulfilling.
At this point, I have no idea if I’ll graduate as a math major and pursue a profession associated with math. If I do, I don’t expect to be the most amazing mathematician. That’s okay though. Mastery comes at a cost I’m not ready to pay at this moment. I’d rather be capable and a friendly coworker who has joys and hobbies outside of work too.
It’s okay to choose to be more well-rounded over being a master of a single subject.
4. Maybe Slower Is Better
Most of us, to one extent or another, have fallen in love with the idea of progressing quickly. We have a desire to put all our energy into learning and move from one thing to the next at amazing speed.
With math, if you’re hoping to move on to higher levels, it is wise to take your time and completely master the fundamentals. A lot of math students, including myself, run into sections where the material from previous years gives us more problems than the new material.
The fundamentals provide the basis upon which all new material is taught. If you have any gap in the fundamentals, no matter how small, it will give you problems at some point. When people try to move quickly through these fundamentals, thinking they’ve mastered the subject, they often reach a point where they’re forced to go back and re-learn them before they can move on.
Spending a little more time on the basics can make the rest of your learning so much easier. Slow down and learn thoroughly, not quickly.
5. It’s Easy to Overlook the Capabilities of Math
Most of us learn math by having problems thrown in front of us, as we quickly scramble to understand them. Teachers only have a limited amount of time and they provide the material you need to know without showing how the material can be used in real-world scenarios. This has led many people to believe math is irrelevant to their lives.
Looking at the full scope of math and everything it allows us to do, it’s amazing the questions we can solve. Almost everything in our lives can be related to math in some way. Just like the sciences, math allows us to discover and recreate our world. For most of us, however, these abilities get lost and bogged down by problems unrelated to real-world scenarios.
Teach people how they can use things in their own lives. Don’t get caught up in abstract ideas.
6. The Most Rewarding Path Usually Isn’t the Easiest
The two math classes I’m taking this semester have both been challenging in their own ways. Some topics took a while to understand, and a few of those continue to give me trouble.
I’m not at the top of the class or the bottom. Instead, I find myself right in the middle. Throughout all the ups and downs, it has felt rewarding. There is joy in learning something new.
Additionally, when I push myself to try a little harder, I get paid back with a sense of satisfaction. There are easier classes I could take, but they wouldn’t be as rewarding. I enjoy the fact that I have to spend a little more time on it, and I know there is still room to grow.
Schedule a few things each week that push you 1% closer to the person you want to be. Find joy in the challenges you create for yourself.
I’ve been a math major for a handful of weeks, and I’ve enjoyed each of those weeks. The subject allows me to pursue my fascination with numbers and calculations.
With each day, I learn a little more about myself. Math is a really incredible subject, and I wish everyone could experience a little bit of its wonder.
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