A student of mine (RJ) once asked what it takes to succeed in mathematics. We were discussing math competitions in particular, but our conversation easily extends to broader success in mathematics. The conversation went on for several minutes before RJ and I arrived at the obvious conclusion: success in math is no different than success in any other discipline.

The interesting thing about this conversation is that learning math does work exactly like every other discipline. Yet people usually do not think of it that way. The widely held belief in our culture is that people fall into one of two groups, those that are "good at math" and those that are not. People do not seem to realize that math is a skill. And like any other, a skill that you can improve through practice and hard work.

This misconception about the process of mastery sets math apart from so many other disciplines. Think back to your high school days, and the number of hours you spent practicing on the ball field or in the music hall. In our culture we idolize the athlete who sacrifices everything in pursuit of victory. We hold it virtuous to practice for hours every day, striving for complete mastery, all in the hope of being the champion of your own little pond. Almost any personal sacrifice is justified, so long as glory is achieved.

Although less intense, we also hold a special respect in this culture for musicians who practice countless hours every day to master their craft. Or for the artist who spends hours in the studio perfecting a technique. That dedication and focus is respected, if not quite glorified.

And then there is mathematics. Have you ever known a student who voluntarily spends multiple hours every day practicing their mathematics? And if you did meet such a student, what would you think? Would you respect their dedication and hard work? Or would you join the majority of Americans in thinking that there must be something wrong with this kid? That they must be weird? At the very least that they are different from the rest of us?

The great irony here is that while the athlete or musician is praised for dedication and character, the math student is usually derided. Perhaps not outwardly, but derided none-the-less. We have numerous derogatory terms in the English language for people who like math (or things that are a little too mathy) too much. The geeks and nerds among us are tolerated, or at best, teased affectionately. But never glorified. Our culture holds no respect for the dogged pursuit of this particular kind of mastery.

Yet determination is exactly what is required. Despite our cultural faith in the Genius Myth, mathematics is no different than any other realm of mastery. If you spend enough time and energy pursuing math, you will end up mastering it. Without fail. Put in your 10,000 hours and you will be an expert. Even if you are not a "genius".

So RJ and I concluded that what it takes to truly succeed in mathematics is to be unafraid to treat math like athletics or music. To achieve mastery, you must put in the time. You must work hard, allow yourself to love what you do, and surround yourself with people who support your determined pursuit.

There are some people that make mastering mathematics look easy. If you don't happen to be one of them, it only means you have to work a little harder.

The interesting thing about this conversation is that learning math does work exactly like every other discipline. Yet people usually do not think of it that way. The widely held belief in our culture is that people fall into one of two groups, those that are "good at math" and those that are not. People do not seem to realize that math is a skill. And like any other, a skill that you can improve through practice and hard work.

This misconception about the process of mastery sets math apart from so many other disciplines. Think back to your high school days, and the number of hours you spent practicing on the ball field or in the music hall. In our culture we idolize the athlete who sacrifices everything in pursuit of victory. We hold it virtuous to practice for hours every day, striving for complete mastery, all in the hope of being the champion of your own little pond. Almost any personal sacrifice is justified, so long as glory is achieved.

Although less intense, we also hold a special respect in this culture for musicians who practice countless hours every day to master their craft. Or for the artist who spends hours in the studio perfecting a technique. That dedication and focus is respected, if not quite glorified.

And then there is mathematics. Have you ever known a student who voluntarily spends multiple hours every day practicing their mathematics? And if you did meet such a student, what would you think? Would you respect their dedication and hard work? Or would you join the majority of Americans in thinking that there must be something wrong with this kid? That they must be weird? At the very least that they are different from the rest of us?

The great irony here is that while the athlete or musician is praised for dedication and character, the math student is usually derided. Perhaps not outwardly, but derided none-the-less. We have numerous derogatory terms in the English language for people who like math (or things that are a little too mathy) too much. The geeks and nerds among us are tolerated, or at best, teased affectionately. But never glorified. Our culture holds no respect for the dogged pursuit of this particular kind of mastery.

Yet determination is exactly what is required. Despite our cultural faith in the Genius Myth, mathematics is no different than any other realm of mastery. If you spend enough time and energy pursuing math, you will end up mastering it. Without fail. Put in your 10,000 hours and you will be an expert. Even if you are not a "genius".

So RJ and I concluded that what it takes to truly succeed in mathematics is to be unafraid to treat math like athletics or music. To achieve mastery, you must put in the time. You must work hard, allow yourself to love what you do, and surround yourself with people who support your determined pursuit.

There are some people that make mastering mathematics look easy. If you don't happen to be one of them, it only means you have to work a little harder.