“I’m bad at math.”

Answer: There’s no Substitution for Practice.

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Today, I was listening to a panel of well-known science communicators and towards the end during the Q&A session, someone asked “I’ve always wanted to be an astronautical engineer, but I’m horrible at math. I’ve got lots of passion. Can this dream ever be a reality, and where do I start?”

The responses that came from the panel reminded me a lot of similar passions of mine, learning an instrument and making art.

First, to paraphrase their responses:

You don’t have to be a mathematical wizard or the best in your class to be a physicist or an engineer. If you’re interested, do it. It does take a lot of work though, and if you don’t enjoy it, you can’t do the work. —Laurence Krauss

When it comes to math, there’s no substitute for practice. It sucked for me, it sucks for everyone. You come to me and say “I’m bad at math” I’m open-minded of course, but skeptical. I bet you can do it. —Bill Nye

Math is a lot like learning another language that does not have a Roman alphabet. It looks completely intractable at first. But the more time you spend with it, and the level of intensity that you immerse yourself into the language, the easier it is it learn. —Neil deGrasse Tyson

In short, it sounded to me like the very same answer I give to people who say “Oh, I’m bad at art.” Or “I don’t have natural talent for music.” The fact is, both of those statements are simply not true. Art & music are not natural talents. It’s a skill that comes to people after a lot of really hard work.

NO ONE has picked up a pencil and made a perfectly formed human figure drawing the first time.

NO ONE has picked up a guitar and played Jimi Hendrix’ “Eruption” the first time.

Was it fun to get to the point of being able to do either of those things? Yes, sometimes (or even most times) it was fun. But other times, it takes a lot of grueling hard work and practice. Interest is what will keep you going through the hard work.

I’ll leave you with this quote by Pablo Casals, the world’s foremost cellist (age 81). He was asked once why he continues to practice four and five hours a day. Casals answered: “Because I think I am making progress.”

Image Source: Hernán Piñera

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