My parents had just returned from an open school night at my junior high school. Among the teachers they spoke with at length was my 8th grade math teacher, Ira Goldstein. He was an especially strict taskmaster. He’d rock back and forth in the front of the classroom on the balls of his feet. At the same time, he’d repeat the words, “don’t settle for mediocrity.” I did well in the class while polishing my imitation of Mr. Goldstein concurrently.
Mr. Goldstein shared the following observation about my work: “Mitchell will always do well in math, but he will never invent it.” If my parents knew what this remark meant they didn’t share it with me. I remained perplexed by it until I entered my doctoral program many years later. At that time, I had an epiphany that helped me to understand the wisdom in Mr. Goldstein’s comment.
I was taking statistics. It was difficult for me. I worked hard and did well. But I didn’t love it. In fact, I couldn’t wait for the course to end. I couldn’t connect to my instructor’s enthusiasm for topics such as regression analyses, one of which he described as “intuitive and elegant.” Regression analyses are neither intuitive nor remotely elegant to me. I cannot imagine they ever will be.
And that’s when it dawned on me. I can do math and quantitative calculations. I have to work hard at them but I can do them successfully. But I will never love them. I have to force myself to do them. And because I will never love them, I’ll never feel inspired to work on them. I won’t put in the time and energy to do anything new or creative in these arenas. In other words, I’ll never “invent” math. Mr. Goldstein was right.
Conversely, I spend time doing things I enjoy. Whether or not I’m good at them makes little difference. I want to spend time on them. I'll work hard to address shortcomings in my skills to take them on. In the process I'll deepen my understanding. My effort will challenge me to view other aspects of my life in different ways. That’s the kind of creativity I want in my life.
In short, I put my energies into things I enjoy. I reap tremendous benefits from my hard work and dedication to them. Other subjects I’ll avoid if possible, but otherwise feel comfort in knowing I can tackle them should I need to do so.
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