Write it down! (When talent becomes a hurdle)

November 2, 2010

I met with an older student this evening, who’s story is classic. He excelled in math effortlessly; everything was obvious. This until he hit college level abstract algebra, and then… failure.

This is a ridiculously common story among students with natural talent for math. There’s a bravado in not writing things down, not needing to work out the details aloud. You know because you’re smart, not because you had to work for it. And then one day, you hit some mathematical ideas that are too hard and too deep to “get.” Time to learn how to work.

What’s the solution? Step 1: write it down! Putting ideas on paper is a way to turn an intractable ten step problem into ten easy one step problems, and you can’t do it unless you write. You need to start before you know what the end is, and allow yourself to make mistakes that will become steps towards the end.

I heard Malcolm Gladwell speak about this tussle between genius and sweat on Radiolab recently.


His conclusion? Love is the critical factor (Robert Krulwich tries to ask how critical, but doesn’t get too far). Malcolm Gladwell, we here at Math for Love agree. Love is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition to brilliance.

Why are people so hostile to the notion that what genius is is an extraordinary love for a particular thing?

–Malcolm Gladwell, about 8′ in above

Speaking of sweating through big projects, my girlfriend and I signed up to participate in NaNoWriMo, which means that we’ll each be writing novels this November. I actually plan to be a NaNoWriMo rebel (there’s a forum for us) and write math related nonfiction (or fiction), but at the end of day one, I’ve got a weird fairy tale-ish thing that I can’t really control. Is it good? Will I end up with a real novel?

Who cares. The goal here is to write it down. In novel writing as in mathematics, there’s a time to just put pen to paper and see what you can build. You have to make something ugly before you make something beautiful. Be proud of the ugly, I say.

So today I wrote 2074 words, which puts me ahead of schedule for 50,000 by the end of the month. Will I make it? Not sure. But damned if I won’t try to put quantity ahead–way ahead–of quality for a while.

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