Gabriela D'Souza on Failure in Learning Math

 The guest post below originally appeared on Medium. Gabriela D'Souza's personal Twitter feed is  @gabster0191 . Her Medium bio says "Econo nerd. Kitten-obsessed but it's validated by my other occupation - one of the editors-in-chief @econlolcats. Also tweets from @act_yen."

The guest post below originally appeared on Medium. Gabriela D'Souza's personal Twitter feed is @gabster0191. Her Medium bio says "Econo nerd. Kitten-obsessed but it's validated by my other occupation - one of the editors-in-chief @econlolcats. Also tweets from @act_yen."

Miles: In my experience as a writer, I have only had a piece go viral once: the Quartz column "There's One Key Difference Between Kids Who Excel at Math and Those Who Don't" Noah Smith and I wrote, which was also syndicated to the Atlantic under the title "The Myth of 'I'm Bad at Math,'" and translated into Spanish here.  Noah and I have been heartened to see those ideas do some good in people's lives. I am grateful to Gabriela D'Souza for permission to share her experience here. Here are her words, which I follow with links to other resources about math learning. 


Gabriela: I’m writing this mostly because when I needed to read something similar a few years ago, it wasn’t there.

In economics, it feels really hard to admit failure to your peers…sometimes harder than actually facing it. And even the ones who have posted their failures, well let’s be real, they appear to have landed on their feet okay. So you weren’t accepted into one elite university, you got into another — doesn’t really seem like failure to me. But that’s part of the problem too; one person’s definition of failure is quite different from another’s. That aside, sometimes failures are pretty black and white, as it was in my case.

Five years ago I began a rather foolhardy mission. I started a Master of Economics degree at Australian National University, without much prior maths knowledge, while working full time. I went to a high school that allowed me to drop maths in Years 11 and 12 and you better believe I dropped it. I was lucky enough that the university I picked for my undergrad turned a blind eye to my lack of maths credentials, and admitted me in to their Economics program. I struggled through calculus in second year micro, and first year business stats, but I got there in the end, graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in Economics.

I was warned that the maths in the Master of Economics program at Australian National University was hard, but I thought I’d be able to crack it. I was very wrong and in so over my head. To make matters worse, I had visa issues (an added stress that I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy). In the end it was all too much and I failed the maths and the microeconomics component for my master’s degree.

Going back to how it felt — it sucked. I have no words. I was consumed every day by the thought that I was a fraud; that people were going to think less of me; that I alone had *failed*. I was put on warning for academic probation. It was a low low point. I honestly thought I would never get over the panic I felt every time I walked past the Australian National University College of Business and Economics building. Typing that line out now makes me smile.

The reason this is easier to write about now is time and achievement. At the end of the year I will have completed my Master of Economics degree at Monash University.

I finally got around to trying again a couple of years after that ill-fated attempt at ANU, realising that I was seriously limiting my career options if I didn’t do it. I didn’t mess around this time. I used Khan Academy religiously, brushing up on calculus, topological spaces, lagrange multipliers (special shoutout to Patrick JMT on Youtube). I worked out problem after problem from Schaum’s Intro to Math econ. I got a tutor for my first semester.
 Reading this article by Noah Smith and Miles Kimball (one of my favourite go-to articles when someone says to me, “I’m just bad at maths”) helped me realise that while I might not be naturally gifted when it comes to maths, or most things for that matter, I can sure as hell work really hard to figure out what I don’t know and improve on it. And while there was a certain fear of finding out what I didn’t know, it at least gave me something to work on.

We haven’t yet normalised it so it’s acceptable to fail. Failure is feared, avoided, and we shy away from it. But as many have noted, it makes us know what we’re better at and if we’re lucky it teaches us how to become better.

And here’s the other thing I have to keep reminding myself about failure — it helps me realise that I’m trying and sometimes that’s both enough, and all I can do.


Miles: I wrote a follow-up column "How to Turn Every Child into a "Math Person" that gives links to some of the reactions to "There's One Key Difference Between Kids Who Excel at Math and Those Who Don't" and many resources for math learning. Here are some links to posts on math learning that didn't make it into that column:

Also, here are some Twitter discussions on math learning: