“I’m not a math person” and other tall tales

I spent seven years living in Texas before moving to the beautiful Pacific Northwest. There are a lot of stereotypes about Texas, and some of them are quite true. A lesser known but common sight in Texas is that of the witty, gritty, Texas lady. There were some famous ones that I loved, such as Ann Richards, the feminist governor of Texas who preceded George Bush and filmed this iconic/hilarious bit for the Alamo Drafthouse. Then there was the late great Molly Ivins, whose razor sharp commentary brought a little sense of humor to the crazy political scene in Texas and beyond.

Photo of Dr. Sally CaldwellThese ladies (and more) are larger-than-life examples, but you really don’t have to go far in Texas before you run into everyday women  just as sharp and game-changing as their more famous counterparts. I had the good fortune to have met several such treasures, including a professor of mine who recently passed away. I knew from the moment I met her that Dr. Sally Caldwell was a different sort of person than I was used to, but I didn’t expect her to change my perspective on myself and to a certain extent education itself. That she did. A little background:

I went to graduate school when I was in my early 30s. As I approached the idea of going back to school for a social science, I balked at the statistics course I knew I would have to take. I was confident that I could tackle the reading and writing workload, but “I’m not a math person,” I told myself. I had done poorly in undergrad stats almost a decade before, and I was convinced I’d do poorly again. In fact, I dreaded any and all math. I decided with trepidation to re-take undergrad stats over again before starting the grad program in an effort to prepare myself.

This is when Dr. Caldwell came into my life and taught me, among other things, that there is no such thing as a math person. She walked slowly into the classroom with her cane on the first day and pulled a clichéd but no less arresting number. “Look to your left,” she said, “and look to your right. At least one of these people will not make it through this class.” She went on to let us know that if we would just show up and do the work she told us to do, every single one of us would do just fine. I was skeptical.

I was not a math person, damn it!

Dr. Caldwell had actually written the textbook for the class. She knew how to teach people statistics. Although she was used to people not listening to her and buying into the “not a math person” story, she was absolutely right. If you went through that book with her step by step, took the time and had the patience with yourself to practice, the material was actually quite simple.

This experience really flew in the face of my previous mantra about not being a math person. It caused me to pause and think about that old trope and to realize that there is no such thing as the mythical math person. Not only that, but American culture nudges us, particularly young girls, to shy away learning math or considering ourselves oriented toward math. I realized I had told myself I was not a math person because of a vague sense that it was cooler to not be a math person, and because it seemed unfeminine to me to think too much about it, and because math had challenged me in the past.

Using Dr. Caldwell’s plain speaking manner and methodical teaching style as a model, I realized that the only trick to learning math was the ability to tolerate discomfort – such as the discomfort of not being able to immediately understand it, for one. I also had to put up with the discomfort of feeling vaguely uncool and unfeminine. For the first time in my life, I did just that. It was amazing, truly. I aced Dr. Caldwell’s statistics course, and I went on to get the highest grade in my grad stats class as well as become a statistics TA. It was a powerful transformation.

In later years, I learned that the research supports some of my realizations.

“I think that from very early ages we [in America] see struggle as an indicator that you’re just not very smart,” Stigler says. “It’s a sign of low ability — people who are smart don’t struggle, they just naturally get it, that’s our folk theory. Whereas in Asian cultures they tend to see struggle more as an opportunity.”

Are you also “not a math person?” Would you accept the idea that this may be a myth? It’s a perfect example of our minds telling us a story that is meant to protect us from being ostracized or from taking risks to achieve new goals. Perhaps you are “not a public speaker,” or “not good at X.” If X is something that you want to do, or you need to do in order to achieve a larger vision, ask yourself what happens if instead of running way from that discomfort,  you leaned right into it.

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