The problem with maths

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Image via Roman Mager
You have three options when you get stuck: keep going, give it a break, or quit.

Being stuck is part of making progress. The real problem though is that we often interpret stuckness as a failure. Having a bad experience undermines the enjoyment of doing. It convinces us to switch subjects to something newer and achievable.

Mathematics is one of those discouraging topics that gets left behind as we age. We lose patience with math’s rules and exactitude–the answer is either right or wrong. But it’s not as rote as it seems. Says famed mathematician Andrew Wiles: “it’s extremely creative. We’re coming up with some completely unexpected patterns, either in our reasoning or in the results.”

Math, just as playing sports, writing and other crafts, takes persistence. Maintaining excitement and having faith in the process are the keys to sticking it out.

“Yes, you don’t understand [something at the moment] but you have faith that over time you will understand — you have to go through this. It’s like training in sport. If you want to run fast, you have to train. Anything where you’re trying to do something new, you have to go through this difficult period. It’s not something to be frightened of. Everybody goes through it.” — Andrew Wiles

Abandoned projects

We abandon projects that are important. We avoid replying to the most important email.

We ignore priorities because of the resistance; that little golf ball sized amygdala near the back of our brain that tells us to flee. The difference between humans and other animals is that we can dance with the fear.

The fear of failure. The fear of taking responsibility if we’re a success. If it’s something we’ll regret, we’re compelled to act on it.

Lack of time is often our excuse to never getting started. Everyone has five minutes in their day. To have the guts to acknowledge the resistance but do the work anyway may be the bravest thing we ever do.

The backlash of presence

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Image via Dingzeyu Li

If you’re like me, you have a love and hate relationship with the mindfulness practice. It only seems to work when you’re actually doing it, at home in your chair far away from the chaos of life. The rest of your time you’re trying to install this moment-by-moment awareness into your real life to no avail. It’s both frustrating and hilarious.

The author of America the Anxious Ruth Whippman sums up the insidiousness of mindfulness in a recent op-ed in the New York Times:

“Mindfulness is supposed to be a defense against the pressures of modern life, but it’s starting to feel suspiciously like it’s actually adding to them. It’s a special circle of self-improvement hell, striving not just for a Pinterest-worthy home, but a Pinterest-worthy mind.”

There are some benefits of meditation–it calls attention to our lack of focus. We’re all so easily distractable in the smartphone age. Instead of acting smug about inner-noticing and our failure of presence, perhaps the quickest path to emotional calm is to stop trying so hard to be here now in the first place.

“This is a kind of neo-liberalism of the emotions, in which happiness is seen not as a response to our circumstances but as a result of our own individual mental effort, a reward for the deserving. The problem is not your sky-high rent or meager paycheck, your cheating spouse or unfair boss or teetering pile of dirty dishes. The problem is you.”

Think for your selfie

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Image via Octavio Fossatti

Your first opinion is always someone else’s. There’s nothing wrong with that; that’s just the way we learn. At first, we copy, then we pursue our own version of the truth. The truly curious will spend time doing research and originating their own thought.

Thinking takes a lot of work. You can spend years analyzing and combining disparate ideas, letting it all marinate. Only then does the big idea hit you in the shower.

If there were one answer, people would’ve stopped thinking a long time ago. What we consider truth now is what we know to work most of the time. But we’re all still guessing.

To propose new ideas is only risky because of all the pertinacity required to get others to accept them. It’s even harder in a world that twists the facts. But the facts don’t lie. They explain.

To echo William Gibson: the doctrine of the future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed. What matters isn’t always popular, at least just yet.