With apologies to Robert Fulghum for borrowing part of his famous book title.
The famous Greek philosopher Plato had an inscription on the archway above the entrance to his Academy. It read “Let no one who is ignorant of geometry enter here.” He was convinced that the study of mathematics was the best general training for the mind and was therefore necessary for future philosophers and those who would lead his ideal state. Similar arguments flourished well into the mid/late 20th century. One occasionally hears remnants of them still.
We walk a thin line here. While it continues to be true that a general working knowledge of some basic mathematics is increasingly important in everyday life, one would be hard pressed to claim that one must study mathematics to succeed in other areas, or even that it is necessary training for the mind – or for life.
At the same time, there are skills learned while studying the broad fields of mathematics can also carry over to other endeavors of life. It’s fun to think about them, even if for no other reason than reinforcing the “mathematics is so much more than just arithmetic” theme.
Here then, is my partial list of math skills that also translate well to other areas of life:
- Problem Solving. Maybe this is obvious, maybe not. But it’s true that the techniques one uses to tackle and solve math problems – trial and error, defining conditions, systematic elimination, and so many more – are helpful in tackling life’s other day-to-day problems.
- Trial and Error. This one, perhaps surprisingly, is more important than it looks. Usually it’s not the shortest or most elegant path to a solution, but it’s often the one that yields the most understanding. If you’re stuck on a problem, sometimes it helps to try something.
- Determination. Trying seven things that don’t work before finding one that does helps develop grittiness in life, as well as mathematics.
- Confidence. And when the one thing you try does work, you gradually begin to believe – and then manifest – that solutions are often a matter of time and determination, not necessarily overwhelming intelligence.
- Creativity. Determination and confidence often lead to willingness to step back and search for the unexpected approach. And, sometimes, temporarily ‘breaking the rules’ yields surprising results.
- Paying attention to conditions and details. You can’t solve a problem which appears to be asking for “three consecutive integers” (I know -why would you want to?) if you don’t notice that it really said “three consecutive even” And you won’t have much success trying to patch things up after a fight with your significant other, if you bring him/her candy while not remembering they’re on a diet!”
- Teamwork. Two heads are better than one. If each head has a different idea about how to solve a problem, it’s not only a chance for innovative solutions, but it’s also a good chance to reinforce patience and listening skills.
- Humor and Perspective. If you’re really stuck on a problem – and even if not – it’s always fun to remember that it’s probably not the end of the world. Sometimes a good laugh is not only the shortest route to that perspective, but also the break one needs to see a novel approach!
Math Skills and skills in life . . . how connected are they? I wonder what Plato would say today.