Math is hard. So is life. Get over it. (Reminders from my dad and an MIT tee-shirt)
I have the privilege of working with a group at MIT, so I have a chance to get to Boston a few times a year. On my most recent trip, I saw the shirt that you see in this post, which says, “Math is hard. So is life. Get over it.” The message may sound cynical, but I really like this shirt because it reminds us that life isn’t always easy. I also believe that math doesn’t always have to be hard; you just need good teachers who know what they’re doing and love the work. One of my friends from grad school, Dr. Nina Capone Singleton, sent me a Facebook message yesterday to let me know that she’d thought of me because she’s a professor at Seton Hall where my dad used to teach math. My dad was a grad student at Seton Hall, working toward his Master’s degree. He was also an employee of the Education Opportunity Program on campus. I remember going to class with him once as a little girl. He was reminding the class of the concept of infinity, and used a basketball reference to illustrate the concept. He wanted to show that infinity went on forever, so he drew a picture of a basketball net and made the motions of throwing a lay-up and getting the ball into the net. He didn’t just do a couple for repetitions of hand movements, he did these hand motions with his left hand throughout the whole class period, all while giving the lecture and writing on the board. Meanwhile, I was in the back of the classroom, scribbling on paper, making pictures with numbers and symbols and squiggly lines pretending that I was “doing math.” As you can see, I never forgot that lesson. By the time I was in 5th grade, I had a little algebra workbook, and was learning about variables. I later learned how to differentiate and integrate from my dad. He taught me at the dining room table. I think that I’ve posted about this before, but if I ever had a math question, he would tell me to get plenty of scrap paper and sharpen the pencils. Then he would clap his hands, stomp his foot on the ground and say, “Ah … math! Good stuff!” My brothers would steer clear of asking Dad for math help because it was a guarantee that we’d be there at that table until late at night. Even though I later struggled through math classes in undergrad Howard and later in grad school at Northwestern, I’m proud to say that at least I was good in Differential Equations. (I had a really good “Diff Eq” professor in college. I don’t remember his name now, but he came to Howard as part of his “second career.” He was a retired Ph.D. from IBM.)
So math is hard, but it is easier and more enjoyable if you have a good teacher. Similarly, life is not easy and some of life’s lessons are hard, but it is easier when you have people to give you good advice and when you follow it. The term “get over it” seems piercing, but as I heard on a “New Life Live” radio program today (with Steve Auterburn, author of one of my favorite inspirational/self-help books, “Healing is a Choice”), we have to be careful not to get into the “groundhog day” rut where we do the same things over and over and over again with little to no results or signs of progress. The “groundhog day” comment is a sub-reference to an old Bill Murray movie where he wakes up on Groundhog Day, and every subsequent February 2 is the same. The key is that we want our days to be productive, where the results of one day fuel the pending projects of the next. So what has to happen to move things forward? Surely there is self-motivation, but I believe that we should include other things that are going to allow us to operate at our peaks. Some things that might facilitate an opportunity to get out of a rut include involving friends in your goal-setting, talking to mentors, sharing thoughts with family, getting counseling, getting a check-up from a physician, prayer, and experiencing a different environment for a few hours or a few days. For some, a combination of all of these may be helpful. For others, there may be different activities that will help.
So while I like the tee-shirt, I think that I’d like to consider a re-design of the seemingly harsh term “get over it”. I would modify the design on the shirt to say, “Math is hard. So is life. Get ON with it.” Yes, I think that’s better. Let’s take the time and do what we have to do to move on. It may not be an instant change; it may take some time to get everything in place. But, let’s plan to progress. Wishing all of you well as you move forward. Good luck! Let’s go!