The school system has been set up to polarise the sciences and the arts, and more importantly, the elite and the common, while students in their most formative years try to grasp the little they can for their identity and place in society. We all want to burn into our hard drives a short, sweet paragraph to roll off our tongues when introducing ourselves, hoping to get something worthwhile in return. Whenever I mention that I do mathematics, people would cringe, saying, “I’m not a maths person.” But when I added that I write as well, a friend asked, “But aren’t maths and writing worlds apart?”
Last Thursday during a career talk, I spoke briefly before my juniors at The Y.W.C.A. Hioe Tjo Yoeng College (HTYC) on my experience doing mathematics and writing in tandem. Like many newbies in public speaking, I felt anxious for not being the most qualified to speak, as I’m painfully aware of masters such as novelist Keith Mansfield and mathematician Edward Frenkel of Love and Math fame, and I regret missing the chance to become a maths textbook editor as I didn’t intend to enter maths education – it’s a low-demand, high-supply field in Hong Kong, and I would not like to compete where the odds are stacked against me.
Let me show you how I have been integrating maths and writing, and by extension my thoughts on how to emerge from being unknown to being known.
1) Spurious beliefs kept me trapped as an underdog.
When I was small and Christmas trees were tall, I loved writing poetry and enjoyed novels, especially those by Roald Dahl. Like him, I wanted to inspire children with intricately-woven and humorously-spun stories. Yet as I slowly realized that many writers failed, I thought that writers had to be poor. And in the financial hub we live in, poverty terrifies me as my family members had been through such a time. Though I joined literary meetings at public libraries, I was cynical towards organizations who cared about local literary talents – what if we all ended up poor just because of a passion that doesn’t convert into a decent living and respectable identity?
So as an elementary school pupil, I came up with other jobs I thought seemed respectable – fashion designer, flight attendant, lab assistant – to answer the pressing question under Industrial Age thinking, to which Seth Godin attributes in Stop Stealing Dreams the current educational system, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” In spite of my ingenious plan to “escape my destiny” as a writer and be a nice cog or bolt in the workplace machine, I have not become any of them.
Firstly, on fashion design, I heard that the fashion world had some issues that sounded unpleasant to me, and I felt that a fashion design course in university or college would ruin my potential. Moreover, although I also like to draw, I have hesitated to use the best known paid design software Photoshop, and missed out on many chances to be usefully artistic.
Secondly, on inflight service, I somehow unlearnt – for fun – how to handle emergencies calmly, and soon I believed it when told I was too shy, panicky and fearful to be a flight attendant. Fun has a way of destroying the road ahead. I am also told that flight attendants are no longer paid as well as they used to be.
Thirdly, on being a lab assistant (as opposed to a real research scientist), I picked up the chemistry textbook first when it was revision time, which eventually led to my first major in chemistry, but I dreaded lab work, lab reports and the risk of dying from toxic chemicals. I started university majoring in Chemistry because it was my only ticket to the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), which boasts the best undergraduate mathematics programme and is one of the two top universities in Hong Kong – the other was the University of Hong Kong.
2) When it comes to finding an alternative element, faith and practice are the same.
In The Element (2009) and Finding Your Element (2013), acclaimed educator Sir Ken Robinson makes it very clear that when passions and talents match, one can live life to the fullest.
Yet neither book existed when I was early in secondary school. In deciding which stream I should take, I wanted one that could serve me well (and with the fear of poverty stalking me, it must pay me well) for years to come. It must also give me a coherent story to tell future generations. (Interestingly, even though I prepared almost everything the hour just before I mounted the lectern on Thursday, my sharing turned out to flow very smoothly. I think I beat a seasoned public speaker who said she prepared a speech the midnight just before her big day!) For instance, even though old boys and girls have done it, I would loathe to switch from “science” to “the arts” because I was doomed by unwise choices to writing, and thus poverty, failure, and a life of repeating “I should have done this back then and I want a time machine so badly to fix it”. I endorse what Margaret Albright said on Forbes recently, “There’s plenty of room in the world for mediocre men, but there is no room for mediocre women.” And I did not want to be mediocre – that’s why I tried not to rely on writing for a living.
I had about the same grades in arts and science subjects, doing slightly better in the sciences where answers were black-and-white. Yet what I now consider my element came to me in my first year in HTYC – I topped the chart in mathematics. So I chose the sciences, with additional maths as my elective, and decided to take pure maths in my A-Levels. My school did not offer applied maths. Being averse to maths competitions, I only joined one late in secondary school. I learnt that my peers from other schools have truckloads of trophies and certificates from having joined maths and other contests, and sometimes pictures of contest winners get on the press. I could have had more press exposure if I had joined, but does it matter now that I’ve entered university?
I had done well in mathematics not because of innate talent, but because I dedicated time for it. Hard work turns many people off, but it appealed to me because I didn’t know where I was meant to excel in. If a skill required some hereditary feature I didn’t have, including genes and exclusive connections, I wouldn’t want to be unproductive trying to fit a round peg into a square hole. Yet if a skill did not require talent but only time, I would want to delve into it and see if it paves a way for me. Terence Tao, who was known as a child prodigy in maths, mentions hard work. Even Paul Erdős, one of the finest brains in maths, is claimed to have as many unknown maths papers (relative to the general population) as the many who work in mathematical guilds today.
Six years ago, my mother was retiring, and the fear of poverty gripped me again. When I quit my after-school practice to save my parents’ money, I also cut off the water supply to my flourishing plants, including the high-maintenance one called maths scores. Left to my devices, I could not sustain my grades. That was why unlike my proud peers, I didn’t get a chance to enter EPYMT, a prestigious maths programme organised by my current university, to study number theory and cryptography, which piqued my interest in F.4 since I read what Professor Marcus du Sautoy, of the University of Oxford, articulated in Plus Magazine how primes are connected to Internet security and the yet-unsolved Riemann Hypothesis. As I lacked a plan, I also didn’t get to do serious mathematical research – I asked my questions too late into the semester, when it became too hard to turn my grades around. The science-stream teenager confident in becoming a professional mathematician became more of a mirage.
Strangely enough, though convinced that it was the royal road to poverty, I didn’t completely lose touch with writing. Since secondary school, I secretly entered writing contests but never heard from organizers again. Even in maths, I missed the Plus New Writers Award competition hosted by Plus Magazine. I assumed it would run again, but 2009 turned out to be its final contest to date. In university, I wrote an essay for another maths competition in the US, but I didn’t cut the mustard. I borrowed books on novel-writing and joined some writing activities, but a few chapters into my tale I somehow stopped.
I fell short of my expectations because of three things: I didn’t plan precisely what I wanted to be, I wasn’t brave enough to keep doing what it takes, and I even failed to get advice at opportune times. In short, I didn’t have faith. Faith is belief in deft action, and a lack of such action reflects a lack of faith.
3) Watch out for chances and fight for them.
We have been conditioned to think that we must first have a vision before putting everything into practice. This may work for some; it didn’t for me. I learnt to equate faith with practice or plain hard work.
Despite my myriad failures, I watched out for my big break. I realised that I was used to waiting for my chance on a silver platter. I ditched the platter and sought chances on the Internet, starting with websites I frequented.
Plus Magazine publicised the Maths in the City contest, hosted by none other than Marcus du Sautoy himself. Instantly I thought that if I couldn’t be the best in story-writing or poetry, at least I had a chance in maths, and this contest, unlike the Plus New Writers one, did not seem to run annually. After the final exam – in Physics, I still remember – I researched and wrote for two solid weeks on the Hong Kong Space Museum. As I couldn’t find a good public-domain image of the Museum’s egg shape, I decided to take the photo myself.
Somehow, my bet paid off. Overwhelmed by the sudden announcement that I could go to the great and magnificent University of Oxford, I declined because my relatives who lived there had little to live on and I cannot imagine burdening anyone to drive me there. In retrospect, when I entered the contest, I really wanted to see Marcus in person. The fear of poverty at work again, or else I could have asked Marcus more meaningful maths questions.
Nevertheless, encouraged by that success covered by the press, I seized the chance to write for a book when I learnt about a book publishing mentorship programme from the Maths in the City Twitter feed. The other day I looked into my algebra notes and discovered a name, Emmy Noether, that the professor didn’t mention, and I wanted to know more about her. I took a gamble and I am grateful that Suw Charman-Anderson has given me and a few other brilliant women a chance to stand up for our sisters in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Interestingly, as you learn to grab chances and tap into your latent abilities, some more chances follow. As I agonised over the loss of research opportunities, I told several teachers at CUHK Mathematics about my knack for writing. A lecturer asked if I could pen a piece for the upcoming departmental newsletter, and I agreed to an abridged version of my Emmy Noether essay. Moreover, when I sought help on what I could do after graduation, another professor told me that the new Maths departmental website needed a content writer. Despite a falling-out earlier in my studies with the professor responsible for the website, I am thankful he let me in.
However, sometimes I get tense thinking of my next paid assignment once my stint at the departmental website is over. I have entered other writing contests since Maths in the City, and the spirit of having “never heard from them again” haunts me. Who could I look for? Will I, out of regret, hopelessly crave a time machine? Will I get trapped in a feast-or-famine cycle? Will I ever get on the papers again? Will I leave an unforgettably good legacy like great men and women whose biographies I’ve read?
When more chances come, there remains the danger of falling back on the imaginary platter, thus losing out on more chances to succeed had you kept grabbing. No matter how others entice you to think otherwise, and no matter how important you turn out to be, no one can count on blessings, being born with a silver spoon, or having a famous relative to get heard. Instead, we must fight to be recognised for making a difference. To be known, you have to take the initiative, or no one will.
This article was originally published on LinkedIn.