Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Why Intrinsic Ability Does Not Matter

I'll let you in on a secret.

I am not naturally good at math. I am not naturally intelligent. If you were to put me on a distribution of general "smartness", I would be smack dab in the middle.

This is not easy for me to say.

In third grade, I remember being tested for the Gifted Program, which was just a group dedicated to teaching the best and brightest kids at an accelerated rate. Though I scored extremely high on the reading portion, I tested two grades below on mathematics. Needless to say, I did not get in.

I remember when I was told of my deficiency in math. At that time, I didn't want to be a scientist. I didn't want to be anything. To tell you the truth, I would have been perfectly happy to spend all my days reading. But, for some reason, my lack of mathematical ability bothered me. It truly, truly made me upset - not at the teachers, but at myself. So I went home and told my mother that I had to learn the subject, and that I would be willing to devote my entire summer to it if I had to.

I kept true to my word.

In high school, I consistently scored perfectly on anything written or literature based. I always scored consistently lower on math. It was a great source of shame for me, because by that time, I knew I wanted to go into science. What scientist isn't good at math? I knew that if I didn't understand math, the framework for how the universe works fundamentally, then my understanding of how the world works would be severely impaired. So I kept trying, and enrolled in the highest level math classes I could. By the time I graduated high school, I had taken two years of Calculus. Not shabby for someone who used to be two grades behind.

My friends at the time told me they admired my natural math ability. They said they couldn't ever do math because they weren't wired for it. They claimed people had to be born with the ability, because it couldn't be taught. I tried to tell them how wrong they were.

I now have a minor in Mathematics. I have more training in math than most people in the world. The thing is, I'm not naturally "wired" to do it. I just did it.

Now, I don't want to claim that intrinsic ability doesn't matter at all. It does. I will always have to work twice as hard to learn concepts or complete research. I positively suck at programming. I probably won't ever stand a chance getting a job in academia, because truly talented people work just as hard as I do. But you know what? I've made my peace with that. I went into a hard field because I like it and because I needed to at least try.

There comes a time in most people's lives when they realize that life isn't fair. Some people are born with it all - whether it be beauty, intelligence, charisma, or all these things. I don't know what separated me from my old friends, the ones who were content to throw their hands up in the air. I don't know why I was spurred into action, when so many people around me passively accepted their "inabilities". I don't know why knowledge, for it's own sake, was so important to me, but not necessarily to others. I usually give up pretty easily, to tell you the truth. Today, I could learn a lot from my younger self.

I don't know if there's a point to this, other than nothing should hamper your ability to learn. Don't believe for a second that anything is above your understanding - not math, not physics, not anything. Don't let other people make up your mind for you. It all comes down to what skills you actively pursue.

And though it may be above my level to be the best scientist, I can certainly become a good one. That counts for something.


  1. Funny, I was also really bad at math. I hated it. When I was a little kid I wanted to be a painter.

    In middle school, it started to become a problem how bad I was at math and how much I hated it, and my dad had to start tutoring me. He would sit down with me, and work through homework with me.

    Years later, I graduated Summa Cum Laude from the same university as you, with an engineering degree and also a minor in mathematics, like you.

    I guess having to work for a skill helps you appreciate it more.

  2. LOVE THIS POST, and you! I wanted to be a rock star when I was in elementary school...

  3. Thanks Stephanie. I'm still bad at math only because I choose to be. I know I could hamper down like you did....but I won't because I don't really need higher levels of math that you do. But I admire you for soldiering through and proving to others that it is possible to learn math and use it well. I learned Algebra. Did I brain dump it shortly after the term? You bet I did. But I know if I didn't decide that Photography was going to be my new Major I might have made a better grade in Chemistry....