Sucking at everything else

The June/July issue of the Notices of the AMS features an interview with Gioia De Cari, a former graduate student in mathematics who quit somewhere along the way, went on to become an actress and a playwright instead, and recently wrote and performed a one-woman show about her mathematics experience.

That could have been me, perhaps, in a parallel universe where my graduate student self wasn’t a recent immigrant and had enough of a safety net to be able to contemplate a change of career. Or in another one where I was stuck in Poland instead of going to graduate school in Canada. Or if I had not been available or willing to make several long-distance moves before settling down, or if the only tenure-track academic jobs I could get had been in places where I did not want to live. Even the timeline is close. De Cari was a graduate student at MIT in the late 1980s. I started graduate school in Toronto in 1989.

There would have been a small issue involving my acting skills, or more accurately a lack thereof. Still, I could imagine having had a career in the arts instead, or humanities, or something else with little connection to mathematics. I certainly have thought about quitting mathematics, often and extensively at times, especially in the early years when I was less invested in it. And it’s not like I’ve never had any other interests. At one point, back when I was an undergraduate, I briefly entertained the idea of getting a second degree in the humanities. It was not practical to go ahead with it.

I don’t want to make too light of it. Having an interest in arts and humanities is one thing, making a living out of it is quite another. I’ve never really tried and I don’t know if I could have managed it, much less whether it would have been a better living than what I have now. In the real world, the advantages of my staying in math outweighed the disadvantages every time. It was a relatively secure option and it turned out well enough in the end. Oh yes, I also enjoy doing mathematics. Even so, if it had not worked out as well as it did, there’s a good chance that I would have given serious thought to other possibilities.

About halfway through the article, a somewhat related point comes up in a question from the interviewer (Julie Rehmeyer):

That seems to be a common attitude in math, that you’re only a real mathematician if you suck at everything else.

Really? Why is this even a viable stereotype, not that I have very high expectations in that category? Does anyone actually think that mathematicians are stuck in their profession because they’re not smart enough, or something, to do anything else? Just off the top of my head, I could list quite a few mathematicians here who are also accomplished writers, musicians or artists on a professional level. On second thought, though, a response along those lines would bestow the mantle of legitimate inquiry on a claim that has done nothing to deserve it.

What’s more likely – and this is something I have indeed observed – is that mathematicians have the occasional tendency to think of other careers as somehow less worthy. It’s on display whenever a capable and talented graduate student chooses a non-academic career without even bothering to go through a sequence of postdoc positions. Then again, maybe we just like to clone ourselves and aren’t happy when our efforts end up serving a different purpose. I’m not convinced that any of this would stand up well to closer scrutiny.

Perhaps, then, other pursuits are tolerated as side interests but scorned if you’re too good at it? Or something? Could someone please enlighten me? Maybe I just don’t hang out enough with the real mathematicians among us, but I really don’t think I see that attitude very often.

There was a time, though, early in my career when I complained about a particularly nasty calculus class I had to teach. I was told in response how lucky we are to be able to make a living doing mathematics, an activity beyond all compare, and that the sheer rapture of that should compensate me for the effort I’d have to put into becoming a better teacher. It’s clear enough how the “sucking at everything else” argument would fit in here, especially combined with the assumption that we’re not really interested in anything else, either.

I guess I’ve outed myself as “not a real mathematician”. Might as well. You did notice the title of this blog, didn’t you?

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11 Comments

Filed under art, mathematics: general, women in math

11 responses to “Sucking at everything else

  1. liuxiaochuan

    Well, people tend to resent all the things that they are not familiar with. They possess the same attitude to other people who they are not familiar with, too. Combined with fear, they sometimes are more likely to get to such conclusions as ”You must suck at everything else, otherwise you won’t do this.”

    Even in ordinary life, for example, people who don’t read at all regard readers as something very strange. They will comment, at least in their own hearts, that “These boring guys must not have any other interests in life, so they read.”

    I guess pretty much the same thing happens here. They don’t like math, then they don’t like the people who are doing math. Later, they naturally make such comments. While most mathematicians just ignore this, you always choose to express OUR VOICES. Good writing, and thanks.

  2. CJ

    Like you, I don’t think it is a “common attitude in math” that “real mathematicians must suck at everything else.” I’d never heard of this. And although the interviewer and interviewee seem to agree on it, I do not think we should read their words too closely. They probably meant to express related ideas, and just did not choose their words all that carefully.

    It is certainly a common attitude, not just in math, but in any subject, that expertise and specialization are proportional— that people with lots of interests are “dabblers” and cannot excel at any one thing. (“Jack of all trades, master of none.”)

    In the same question, the interviewer implies that it is common in math to think that mathematicians shouldn’t be too interested in “humanity.” This is not very precise to begin with, but I’d argue that some version of it is indeed true. Many do believe that if you are more interested in something else than you are in mathematics, then you don’t belong in mathematics (or, at least, that you would be happier somewhere else).

    So: “real mathematicians must not spend too much time on everything else,” and “real mathematicians must like mathematics more than they like everything else.” They’re common enough, and close enough to the original statement… I think that’s where they were coming from.

    The way they said it, it sounded like a critique of the mathematics community, but versions of these attitudes are common in lots of areas (medicine, law, and career military spring to mind). Even journalists and playwrights have been known to flatter themselves by imagining that all “real” practitioners of their art have something exclusive in common.

    I won’t say much here, but I couldn’t help noticing that the interview, in large part, was a discussion of the issues faced by women in mathematics, and indeed was probably only included because of its connection to this issue. And yet, as always, the discussion of this issue had a humanities bent and was limited to women who are not, or at least are no longer, in mathematics. (I understand perfectly well that women currently in mathematics have nothing to gain by participating in such discussions in print, but I still find it funny: even in the Notices, a math-educated journalist interviewing an former grad student is as close as one is going to get.)

  3. You are so wrong on this topic :)

    If you suck at anything else, including every possible material teached at school, then you are businessman. :P

  4. Grass Is Greener

    Strange, here I am a former film actor who always wanted to be a mathematician…

    So, you want to be an actor. Here’s a tip. Go audition for some commercials. Go to a casting agency and tell them you’d like to be an extra. Read some books on the mechanics of starting an acting career too. Take some acting classes. Join a community theatre.

    Start with what I just advised and in a few years, well, who knows? Age, by the way, shouldn’t stop you either. Just begin and where you find yourself in a few years is where you should be. Remember: Begin. Be willing to fail again and again until you learn how to be a real actor. You can do it if you really want it badly enough. You may not become Russell Crowe but you might find acting even at the community theatre level a refreshing change now and then from math.

    Now tell me how to become a mathematician! ;->

  5. Oh, becoming a mathematician? That’s easy.

    First, you bind ten years of your life by the ankles. Then you lay it on the altar, stab it to death, and then set it on fire.

    Metaphorically, that is. During those ten years, you’re taking a lot of math classes and feeling stupid most of the time.

  6. This show was playing in San Francisco during an AMS meeting I was at, and I somehow forgot to go after pondering it as a possibility earlier and then not making a decision.

  7. Actually, Matt has left out a few details…

    The process begins with the selection of appropriate children. They should come from families with a history of mental illness, especially Asperger’s, schizophrenia and manic depression, and exhibit strong antisocial tendencies. The children are separated from their families at the age of 7 and made to drink certain herbal potions. 90% of them die in agony within the first few days, and most of the remaining 10% either die or go mad within another month or two. The survivors develop unusual physical and behavioural features, such as enlarged irises, reduced mobility, nocturnal lifestyle and assorted nervous tics. Once past this stage, they require a constant intake of coffee for all their vital processes. They are then subject to a total of 20 or so years of mathematics training, Pai Mei style. If they don’t get killed in a competition, seminar or some other test during the training, they eventually are permitted to defend a Ph.D. thesis.

    Easy, no?

  8. Our host exaggerates somewhat.

    Oh, and whatever you do, DON’T get involved in the graduate text drinking game. “Drink whenever the author says ‘it immediately follows…’, ‘it’s obvious that…’, ‘clearly…’, etc. and you have no idea why” will kill you every time. You’ll be spending more money on booze than on books, and the books come with wicked markups. Eventually this will start to change – just barely soon enough to save your liver, if you’re lucky.

    But in all seriousness… it’s hard and I don’t know of any really good tips. That’s why they say “there are no royal roads to mathematics”. It doesn’t really help that the real advances in the subject are almost entirely written by and for specialists, but then again, some arguments are a lot harder to reduce to a nice, heuristic form than others. Usually you can’t just write a brilliant idea on a postcard.

  9. the agitator

    First of all I love your blog. I’m actually looking to go back to grad school for applied math and the notion that I *must* be interested in mathematics above all else is a bit frightening to me. I am an activist and writer currently, but it doesn’t adequately pay the bills at the end of the day and I’m looking for a proper career. I plowed my way to obtain an engineering degree back in college; however, I learned to despise the often immoral engineering discipline in practice and I never really liked it much either way. What I really enjoyed was the unique beauty of mathematics, not the cold and unjustified fetishism of technology.

    Is it possible to be a mathematician by day and also be able to devote time to other interests? Or would this jeopardize one’s career to an unhealthy degree?

  10. Roxie

    I’ve just started. I’m a secretary at the moment and my son’s high school mathematics has become a bit of a hobby for me. I’m going to go all the way.

  11. On mathematicians having the occasional tendency to think of other careers as somehow less worthy – I’m reminded of the story told of Hilbert: when someone asked what became of one of his students, he apparently replied “He didn’t have enough of an imagination (for mathematics); he became a poet”.