On not being the best at something

I am reasonably good at Maths. This is not a boast – everyone is good at some things and less good at others. I am pretty hopeless at drawing and at swimming. If you don’t believe me, the sketch below is proof. On average I am pretty average; what I gain in the algebra department I lose in sketching and natation. We are all like that.

I rest my case

I rest my case.

When I went to university I discovered that there were many people much, much better at maths than me. They made my maths look like my swimming.Perhaps I could do a PhD, but I would do in three years what someone else could do in a month. And probably they would do it better and then realise it wasn’t particularly valuable anyway. It seemed to me the best thing to do was to give up on the whole maths project. So I became a computer programmer instead.

You may be thinking that that was pretty dumb. Well, I would challenge that. Being a computer programmer had its moments. On the other hand, you may be thinking that that was a pretty dumb reason to give up maths. Well, I agree with you, and I am going to try to explain why. But if you already see why, do feel free to move on. There is nothing interesting to see here.

Computer programmers a pretty cool, I tell you

Computer programmers are pretty cool.

I think this kind of thinking is not unusual. I have never met someone who was the best at something. We are all in this boat and have to deal with it. So, let me suggest a couple of reasons why this was a terrible way to deal with this particular boat.

Firstly, and to repeat myself, hardly anyone is the best. I suspect that most mathematicians look at the Field’s medalists and sigh. And probably most Field’s medalists look at someone like Edward Witten and just groan. This is a mathematician so good, he managed to complete a PhD in applied mathematics following a BA in History. And Witten in turn, perhaps, has nightmares about John von Neumann. And they probably all wish they were Carl Friedrich Gauss. If everyone took my approach, all we would have would be the works of Gauss. And that would leave the world somewhat incomplete. I guess this is just the boat business all over again.

This is quite an attractive boat. In contrast with the sort of boat I am discussing.

This is quite an attractive boat. In contrast with the sort of boat we are discussing.

More importantly, though, is the following. It is just rubbish. It is nonsense. Really. It just doesn’t matter if someone else could do something better. It is good to do things. Make up some theorems. Sketch a tree. Swim a loch. So what if someone else’s theorem was better, their tree more realistic, and they swam the loch ten times, in the winter, having broken the ice with their teeth, swimming along with one hand behind their back while whistling the theme tune from Ski Sunday.

Its probably an age thing, but I really don’t care any more. I love doing maths; we will talk about why another time, perhaps. My theorems are my theorems, and they are quite cute. About five people in the world will ever read them. I will never do anything groundbreaking. But I just don’t care. Because we all have to do what we can do, and that – for each of us – is somehow an amazing thing.

You really don't have to be bitten by something radioactive to be amazing.

You really don’t have to be bitten by something radioactive to be amazing.

And if that sounds a bit inarticulate, it is because there are plenty of people who can express themselves better than me. But this is my blog …..