Look like an idiot.
Get comfortable with it.
Embrace it, even.
The good math students are those that aren’t afraid to look like idiots.
The best math students are those that know they look like idiots almost all the time. And are still plugging away at their math work.
The Lip Service of Failure
Grown-ups say it all the time: “Failure is good.” Or: “The only way to learn is to fail.”
And yet when a student gets a bad grade, they get in trouble. If they give the wrong answer in class, the teacher is mean to them.
So what happened to “failure is good?”
To be a good math student you have to be able to fail but not look like you’re failing.
It’s the meanest catch-22 in education.
Suppose you can’t figure out how to do the problems in the book. What the teacher does makes no sense.
You’re in a serious state of failure. But every time you tell her that, she just says the same thing, “All you have to do is wha-wha-WHA-wha-wha-wwhhhaa.”
Here’s your next step: go home and fight it out. Figure out how to do the problems – in any way you can that gets you the right answer.
Try anything you can think of. You’re gonna mess up. A lot. But keep working until you figure out how to get from the problem to the answer.
Be creative. Get crazy. There’s a pattern there somewhere, I promise.
And you CAN figure it out.
And once you do, test your method on all the other problems in that section.
If it consistently works, then use it on all the other problems.
You have to make it look like you did it the “right way.”
Which means you can’t admit that you couldn’t figure it out. You can’t say out loud that you went home and failed to make it work a bunch of times. You can’t admit that you struggled.
You can’t admit that you were smart enough to create a new way to do it that totally makes sense.
Instead look at the patterns of the “show your work” stuff that the teacher does. You know, all that junk you copied from the board that makes no sense to you.
In the “work” section of your problems, scratch out something that looks similar.
Remember, the teacher will never look at it if you have the right answer. And since you’ve already figured out how to get the right answer your own way, you’re golden.
So that’s the way to work it as a student. But how about as a grownup?
In front of kids, look like an idiot. Model that struggle. Share the workarounds that you create.
Talk freely and confidently about the things you can’t do. And talk about how you’re smart enough to figure out a different (and better) way to do them.
Be the failure.
Be the learner.
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