Alright. Bear with me. This is a word problem but I swear the set up is for comedy and you’ll be proud of me after I tell you the answer.

It’s 2010. Friends and I are at a gas station. I volunteer to get snacks.

  • Pete wants a $3 Coke and gives me a $5 bill.
  • Davis wants $2 Combos and a $4 Red Bull and gives me a $10.
  • I have no cash and only $6 on my debit card.

What bill(s) do I give at the register and who gets what change when I get back?

It all goes on my debit card. I go back to the car and everyone owes me a beer when we get where we’re going. I’ll call the bank hoping for an overdraft penalty refund once it posts. Davis is a Sophomore, so he’ll get our snacks at every stop from here on.

Problem Solved.

Don’t get me wrong, I like treating people, but numbers, man.

I hit college in 2007 knowing some 8th-grade algebra. Life had taught me ways to get by needing anything else. For my Philosophy degree, I only needed Math 103, “History of Numbers”, to be done with math for good. The logic courses that used some geometry hurt a little, but my papers were good enough to carry me and I did fine overall.

But, I want you to understand, when I had that gut feeling that Computer Science was my only real way forward, I was starting a path that I spent my whole life believing I would fail.

And oh boy, I failed.

I started these classes and I failed constantly. Saying “it’s discouraging” doesn’t cut close. Demoralizing.

But I pressed on anyway. And somewhere after week four, I was just waking up, focusing on the task, following the routines… failing at math had become this miserable hobby I did.

And I pressed on anyway.

About the time I started the last third of lessons on the College Algebra track, I had something like a moment of surprise. The idea that “failure is not an option” is nuanced: failure is, in fact, an ideal temporary option when the alternative is accepting total defeat.

I was failing constantly, but more importantly, I was failing consistently.

I was showing up.

This time last year, I could not find the slope of a line.

And then I pushed through anyway.

But about a month ago I found out I can find slopes of lines perpendicular to lines tangent to points on curves:

Heeeyy colors

Why do we seem to like to say we’re ‘bad’ at things?

Of the things in your life that you’d hope you’re good at, how often do you actually feel good at them? How often do you talk to someone else who shares that they’re “good at” something?

We make a social practice out of not learning things that didn’t come easy. This is how we forget how okay it is to be wrong, to fail. We are always bad at things until we become good at them.

We’d rather console each other over shared badness than embrace it and try for better.

Failure is part of the process. Losing is learning.

Math is just another skill to be developed: it requires repetition, review, and (especially when you’re a words-person) a pretty serious tolerance for failure.

It’s impossible to teach someone something they know they can’t do, even if that person is yourself.

But it makes a world of difference when you’re willing to fail as many times as it takes to succeed.

[Update: May 2020]
I still can’t figure out the best way to deal with the change above. But I did finish a math minor through Calculus III so if you wanna talk about solving multivariable triple integrals, sure thing.

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