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Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in Math Class

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It is a time of caps, gowns, and tassel turning as children, youth, and adults graduate from everything from preschools to institutions of higher education. Graduation is a time of reflection and hopeful envisioning. The conferring of a degree acknowledges one's learning in classes from English to theater to math. Stepping off the graduation stage signifies the transition beyond the classroom. Those topics and ideas must now be applied -- to life itself.

Courses, regardless of topic, can teach us about life. Let's take my field of mathematics as an example, because it is the context I know best. Can everyone learn about life from a math class? Of course: It enables us balance our checkbooks. But how can math teach us about living life itself?

Here is my list of the top 10 things that can be learned from the mathematical classroom -- whether you like the topic or not!

  1. Do your homework! If you plan on being ready only when it counts, then when it counts, you won't be ready.
  2. Circle your answers! When you reach the summit of a mountain in life, take time to enjoy the view. Remember, though, to circle every answer, even when the problem is easy. Take time to celebrate even life's small successes!
  3. Sometimes you cannot know how to do something before you begin! As I say to students in my classes, take the Nike approach and "Just Do It!" You'll literally figure it out later.
  4. There is more than one way to get an answer. The harder the problem, the more likely there is more than one way to solve it, whether the problem be in math or in life.
  5. Balance your equations. To do this, you first must write down an equation. Life is the ultimate word problem. It makes solving for the collision time of two trains traveling in two opposite directions look easy! What is your equation? What will you put into athletics, friends, service, and studies? Remember, when you change one part of that equation, other parts must adjust.
  6. Confused? Try a simpler problem. And remember, you may want to come back to a question later. This is a common problem-solving technique. In life, it can enable you to focus on what's challenging and consider only the essential.
  7. Staring at a question usually doesn't lead to enlightenment. Ask for help! Lost on the road of life? Stop for directions, at least so you can reach another stopping point. As I say to students, knowing that you don't know is important and quite useful to you and others.
  8. Lots of problems don't have one answer. Life is rarely just right or wrong. Oftentimes, you will choose from many good options and, in the end, open one door knowing that you may inevitably close another.
  9. Always be sure your pencil's eraser works! You will make mistakes. This point is well summarized by Albert Einstein when he said, "A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new."
  10. Math may be everywhere, but it isn't everything. Keep in mind that wherever your main interests lie, there is more to life -- for others and for you. So keep looking, and keep exploring!

Classes can open the doors of insight on the world and on yourself. Children learn to read, giving them intellectual passports to lands of fiction and nonfiction. In other courses, students learn the complexities of interdependent economic systems or techniques in sculpting wood or metal. Each classroom can offer insights on life, and life itself can be a classroom where we learn about the world and ourselves. There is always more to be learned and more frontiers to apply what you already know.

This post was adapted from a commencement address I gave at Davidson Day School on Friday, May 25, 2012.