Sunday, February 14, 2010

Mathematics - It’s Who You Hang With

If there is one critical aspect of academic life that I learned once I went off to college as a very young seventeen year old is that it’s important to hang with people who are smarter than you. This is a life lesson I believe all parents should instill in their children, and I have a theory which I’ll get to later as to why most don’t.

As one example, I quickly learned that by associating with the smartest kids in freshman calculus I’d get a sense for their insight and intuition for the subject. I’d pick up all sorts of tips and tricks toward the solutions of problems, proofs, as well as a general appreciation for the subject. A lot of times I’d pick up these tidbits during the professor’s office hours when many of the best students get face time with the teacher. At the same time, the professor starts looking at the small group of regulars that go to office hours as an elite group, the students who are most motivated to learn – so the professor starts associating you with the upper echelons.

I also had the opportunity to hang with some pretty darn brilliant people at the UCLA Computer Club. These are the people who’d read their textbooks without highlighting, or taking notes. Their textbooks would remain pristine, unlike mine that would become dog-eared and ragged at quite a rapid pace once the quarter started. I would love to listen to fast-paced conversations between several of these mega-minds. One particular whiz kid named Mike Stein had a photographic memory. He could open a book, stare at a page, close the book, and recite the text verbatim. Amazing.

Later in life, taking this lesson with me, I’d find myself gravitating to people higher up the academic totem pole. I’d seek out the research luminaries, and the academically accomplished – Ph.D.’s, postdocs, etc.

The lessons I learned proved very beneficial to me. The more I associated with people smarter than me, the more I inched forward in my own awareness and understanding. I pushed my own envelop by who I associated with. It really is logical that it works this way – “knowledge by association.”

I think a lot of parents make the mistake in believing that to shore up a child’s confidence, they should nudge them to associate with their “own kind” or with “average” kids instead of the more gifted ones. Why? They don’t want the kids to feel defeated, or discouraged. But I think this strategy is more due to the parent’s own insecurities and passing along such traits is a terrible thing to do to a child. Doing so is limiting a child’s potential.

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