in STEM

How can you be in STEM if you suck at the ‘M’?

I don’t know the answer to this question. But it’s one I’m interesting in finding out.

I’ve never considered myself a “math” person. It’s not ever something that came intuitively to me. Language, words, ideas… That was the world that my brain easily understood. But rigid logic, formulaic equations and infinitesimally small numbers? I couldn’t handle it.

So for the longest time I’ve said that I hated math.

In all honesty I don’t hate math. I don’t hate it any more than I love it. I’m indifferent to it. Math is like a necessary evil. I’d rather not use it, but it’s an integral part of some of the things I do want to do. So I take it in stride.

There’s a difference between “being a math person” and “being able to do math.” Much like there’s a fundamental difference between “being a writer” and “being able to write.”

Writers, as a group of people, are those who love the written word. They can spend hours spinning tales, and don’t mind immersing themselves in fiction, literature and books to help improve their craft.

A writer doesn’t need to be told to write. They just do it. It’s in their blood.

On the other hand, you have people like the fast majority of our society who aren’t “writers,” but who find that the act of “writing” is a necessary part of daily activity. They may have to write emails, draft cover letters, or create presentations. They don’t do these things because they enjoy them. They do it because it’s a requirement, and they need to learn how to do them to a reasonable degree of success.

But after the project’s done? Oh, you can throw that pen in the trash.

I’d like to start thinking of myself as a person who is “able to do math,” but who is definitely not math-minded, in the same way that others think of themselves as a person who is “able to write,” but may not consider themselves a writer.

When I put my mind to it, I find that I can, indeed, understand and do the math that is required of me. It’s how I convinced my teacher from sticking me in Trigonometry to allowing me to take AP Calculus back in high school. I’d had C’s in her class before, but I didn’t want to do trig. I wanted to take the “hard” class, like all my other friends. So I pulled my final grade up to an A by the end of the semester, and I got into Calc.

Once I was in Calc, though? Oh, those grades went down the toilet, lol.

Because I’d accomplished what I’d set out to do: I’d learned math insofar as I needed it to accomplish a primary goal. Once “math” was the goal in and of itself, my brain was like, “nnnope.”

The same thing happened after I graduated college. Excited to go back to grad school, I signed up to take the GRE. I pretty much only studied for the math portions for 4 weeks before the test. I managed to get a 155, which was considered acceptable for math majors at top-tier STEM universities.

So it’s not that I can’t do math. It’s just that math itself doesn’t interest me. I only care about math in the sense that math is necessary to get me to something I truly care about. And if I can find the answer without having to resort to mathematics, I will.

It’s hard because sometimes you feel like, in order to be a “true” scientist, or a “true” machine learning researcher, you have to LOVE math. And I don’t. I just fucking don’t. And it’s hard because I sort of feel “less than” when comparing myself to others who love math and are great at it.

But I have to stop comparing myself to them and focus on doing what I need to do in order to get to the next level.

Right now, that means taking Andrew Ng’s Coursera course where he teaches us all the math we need to know. That means working on Khan Academy 15 minutes a day to re-train my brain on how to think in this uncomfortable environment.

And it means changing my thinking from “someone who hates math” to “someone who can use math as a tool,” without needing to identify as “someone who loves math.”

Because I’m not.

And that’s okay.