I was always “good” at math. By that, I mean I could calculate quickly from an early age, I took a strange pleasure in completing math exercises in textbooks, and I was fairly good at solving problems. I had good teachers and (I think) I have good math genes, for whatever that’s worth.

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I have no proof of this, but I attribute at least some of my success at K-12 math to a video game I played when I was about 4. It was called TurboMath (above). The more arithmetic problems I answered quickly and correctly, the more points I got, which bought me some very fast (digital) race cars (200 MPH!). I played this so much that I was doing arithmetic at home way above my grade level for the first few years of elementary school. Like a January-born hockey player, I got a lot of positive reinforcement for my strong math skills, which my elementary school self enjoyed and took as confirmation that he was “good” at math. This led to more math, more positive reinforcement and the upwards spiral was off and running.

As I progressed through high school, I still got good grades in math and enjoyed it, but I remember always been intimidated by the next course. In Algebra 2, I was pretty scared of Pre-Calculus. In Pre-Calculus, I dreaded Calculus. And in Calculus, I downright feared Whatevers-After-Calculus. These fears, year after year, proved to be unfounded – it was never so bad, and in math, I always got A’s. But this is worth noting, because in college, I balked at math. I had many reasons: I didn’t want to become a mathematician or math professor or I was interested in other things (highlights of my transcript include: Intro to Microeconomics, Films of Spike Lee, and Psychology 101: Sex on the Brain). But deep down, I think the real reason was that I was afraid my luck would run out; I feared being bad at math. I never took a math class above calculus in college. Kind of sad, really.

I now recognize this as the dreaded “fixed mindset.” The fixed mindset is the opposite of “growth mindset,” which is the one Carol Dweck says and the rest of the world (including me) agrees I should have.

This is strange, because I can think of many examples in that same period of my life where I had a growth mindset. I played baseball all the way through college, which is a sport predicated on a 65% failure rate AT BEST for hitters (mine was 70.2%). Further, playing baseball all my life, I always felt I had to compensate for my lack of coordination and skinny Jewish build by working harder than the next guy. I accomplished more than I ever expected in baseball putting in hours and hours under the guidance of terrific coaches (I wrote about the best coach in the world here).

Now that I’ve learned more about motivation and mindset, I do my best to take my “baseball” approach to most new things (minus the self-doubt).

So, lessons learned here:

  1. It doesn’t matter how “good” you are at something. A fixed mindset seems to catch up to you sooner or later. I developed math talent early, but with that reputation I was always afraid of being one unit away from confusion and thus embarrassment. In a more extreme example, Billy Beane had the talent to be a superstar baseball player, but his mindset got the better of him (see one of my earlier posts).
  2. It’s possible to simultaneously have a growth mindset and a fixed mindset in different contexts. It doesn’t innately occur to most kids to think through the rationality of these things; they simply believe what they believe. I had a student last year who would regularly admit to being bad at math. He was so convinced of this, he saw little point in trying. Yet there he was, mere minutes removed from math class, methodically attempting a kickflip on his skateboard again and again until he landed it. And then a harder trick. Again and again, with a success rate of about 1%. I asked him to imagine how good he’d be if he gave up after the first failed kickflip.