Is Mathematics really hard? Or did we just learn in a hard way?

Illustration by Nino Mekanarishvili

In this piece, Anuprava Chatterjee reflects on five pillars for mathematical learning that he believes will enhance students’ experience of their mathematical journey.

I still remember the abacus playboard the school principal placed in front of me when I was two years old and applying for admission to a preparatory school. What seemed to be a game was a way to teach me basic mathematics. I played with it for four hours straight. I was in love.

After 19 years, five Olympiad Gold Medals, two tier-one math publications, four years of Signal Processing Engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) and eight months of top-tier quantitative finance work experience later, my love remains the same.

When I look back, I realise that I was not only in love with mathematics, I was also decently good at it. In this column I reflect on what might be the five strong pillars behind my personal journey of engaging with mathematics. Hopefully, this might help you overcome the fear you have for mathematics and help you embrace its beauty.

  1. Break the concept up into small sub-parts that are easy to understand: My dad seriously discouraged me from using any formula to solve questions until standard seven. He used to give me simple everyday references to develop my mathematical intuition. Because I never had to memorise jargon, I was never overwhelmed by it.
  2. Try to relate the theory to real-life applications: I read somewhere that ‘Mathematics is the language in which God has written the Universe’. Since then, I have always tried to discern the interesting real-life applications of what I have just learned and hence never felt it daunting. I gobbled up the math behind the universe – space, stars, solar systems, the golden ratio, the mechanics behind physical systems, and so on.
  3. Gamify your problem-solving process: I have always been fascinated by math puzzles, brainteasers and lately poker xD. I even got puzzle books and magazines as birthday presents. My habit of problem-solving began quite early, which ultimately laid the foundations of being comfortable with more complex problems when I grew up. Most kids limit mathematics merely to a subject that they need to pass. Try to make it a game that you play.
  4. Be incredibly patient and considerate with your failures: I performed miserably in a couple of signal processing classes in college. It was quite probable that I would have given up on myself and accepted that it was beyond me. But the key is to stop being hard on yourself and allow yourself the space to fail comfortably, then get up and try again. Most people do not allow themselves this space and want the results too quickly. Failure to achieve these badly set objectives ultimately adds to the stigma.
  5. Don’t hesitate to ask for help: I was incredibly fortunate to have a wonderful set of teachers all throughout my life, who lent me a helping hand whenever I needed. I knew nothing about bioinformatics before Professor Maria Zdimalova from Slovak University of Technology, Slovakia helped me embrace this journey, and now we have been happily working together for the past 18 months, even though we live 6 000 kilometres apart. Please ask for help whenever you need.
Illustration by Liani Malherbe

Now that I am building a career in quantitative finance, trading models and financial mathematics, I am consciously trying to incorporate these five pillars in building my career. Here are some of my practices:

  1. I am not ashamed to watch YouTube videos when I cannot understand even a very small sub-part of a particular topic.
  2. I try to read up financial news and also trade personally to find interesting real-life applications for the theory I have just learned.
  3. I play poker extensively to learn the art of taking calculated risks. I am also not kidding when I say that I have a virtual trading game installed on my iPhone.
  4. I try to stay gentle with myself and give myself the license to fail.
  5. I spend a considerable amount of time speaking with working professionals in finance to gain new insights.

So far, this mental model has been going well for me. I hope I managed to make it easier to deal with the fear of mathematics and inspired you to start on your own journey. I am rooting for you!

Anuprava Chatterjee

Final Year, Bachelors & Masters of Technology
Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), KHARAGPUR, INDIA

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