191. Warning: Contains Maths

I’ve never quite understood the trouble people have with maths.

“That’s easy for you to say, Joseph, because you’re smart,” a friend from college once said. Far from it – I have known smart people in the past 23 years of living, and I am nothing like them. I’m just a guy who likes to show off the limited knowledge that I have – and unfortunately, this braggadocio usually communicates that I’m somehow smarter than the rest.

(or maybe they’re really saying, “Shut up, Joseph, and stop being so arrogant”, but I’ve never been good at reading between the lines. See? Not smart)

I mean – what about maths is so difficult? 2 + 2 is 4, and 2 + 2 + 2 is 6. Throw in subtraction, multiplication, and division (which I’m sure – or I hope – everyone with a reasonable education knows), and you get all the maths you’ll ever have to do in one lifetime.

Well, there’s also algebra and calculus, but I think algebra has more real-world significance.

Earlier this week, I shared with a writer’s group a short story I write in 2012, titled “Malfunction!”, which was about two scientists trying to salvage a situation caused by a malfunctioning time machine. Most of the comments that came back more or less said: “Oh God. Maths. Cool story, though.”

Which I didn’t get. It’s alright if they didn’t catch the technobabble about the nature of space/time, or the rotation of the earth, or the tenets of general relativity. That’s fine – I didn’t understand many of those things either, until some weeks ago, when I became bored enough to look them up.

(I suppose I could learn to do just about anything with the free time that I have at work – but what the hell, I like writing)

But maths! It’s just a string of adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing numbers. Chop the long equation up into small parts, and the average 12-year old would be able to solve it!

I’ve never understood what was so difficult about maths – until I reached Form 4 and was forced to take Additional Mathematics as a subject.

Boy, that didn’t go well.

For most of my Form 4 and Form 5 career, up until 2 months before the government exam, I didn’t understand a thing from Additional Mathematics. It was like the knowledge of how to ride a bike – those who knew how to do it sped ahead like it was nothing. The rest of us who didn’t know how to do it were left in the dirt, wondering what sorcery it took to make such devilishly complicated things work.

I failed my Additional Mathematics paper every single time. When the forecast results came out, they didn’t expect me to get anything better than a pass.

But hell, I didn’t believe I couldn’t understand Additional Mathematics.

So one day, I sat down, created a 2.5 hours playlist on the computer, and as the songs played, I made myself learn Additional Mathematics. When I reached the end of the playlist, I started over from the top, and only when the the last song finished playing for the second time did I stop doing maths for the day.

I did this for a month. The government exam came and went, and I got an A1 for my troubles.

See, I don’t believe there’s such a thing as an inherent inability to do maths. Dance, maybe – some people can’t get a groove to save their lives. Singing, maybe – some people are just not as sensitive to notes and chords. But maths relies on one’s basic ability to understand rules and to apply them – the same skill that tells you not to touch the fire because it is hot.

The difference is that maths doesn’t burn you when you get it wrong.

I believe if you tried long enough, hard enough, and didn’t give up and conclude that you’re just not a maths person, you can do maths just as well as any other person. Maybe maths is not your thing – it isn’t mine, either – but maths is definitely not something that’s only doable by the intellectually gifted.

The next time you come across a maths problem, grab that damn problem and wrestle it to the ground. It’s an intimidating-looking fellow, but really a softie who gives up pretty easily.

Besides, whoever said that you aren’t intellectually gifted?

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