Not A Math Person

By Chris Thurber

“My teacher is an idiot” and “I’ll never use it, so I don’t care” win the bronze and silver medals for the most widely used excuses for poor math grades. The first is a classic external attribution for academic failure. Who could possibly get an A in a course taught by an inept instructor? The second is an equally classic and dismissively cool internal attribution. I’m failing because I’m not trying takes the heat off the learner. It also carries a subtle subtext: I could do fine if I put forth some effort … I’m simply choosing not to. Right.

Neither excuse for computational underachievement is as common—in my 30 years of teaching experience—as the gold-medal winner: “I’m not a math person.” Sharing top honors are the content cousins, “I’m not a science person,” “I’m not a humanities person,” and “I’m not a language person.” All are profound fictions, of course, but we’ve all heard young people discount themselves in this way.

At least “My teacher is an idiot” and “I’ll never use it, so I don’t care” are plausible. In fact, there are some poor teachers who retard learning, just as there are lazy students whose lack of effort earns them poor grades. Happily, most teachers are skilled, just as most students are motivated, at least in some domains.

Baby Proof
“I’m not a math person,” however, is a patent falsehood. We are all math people, as it turns out. Research by Véronique Izard at Harvard University revealed that newborn infants stared longer at a set of abstract geometrical shapes when the number of nonsense syllables they were hearing matched the number of objects in the set. Somehow, a picture of five shapes paired with five “ra” sounds made sense, whereas a picture of three shapes paired with five “ra” sounds did not. Babies between 7 and 100 hours old can perceive numerical match. This finding and others like it have convinced developmental psychologists that humans are born with an intuitive sense of quantity.

Granted, quantity is just one element of mathematics. Babies can’t do calculus, but that’s not my point. Rather, my point is that when young people dismiss a competency wholesale by saying “I’m not a such-and-such person,” they are not simply selling themselves short. They are taking themselves off the market completely. They are rejecting their innate humanity. And they are relinquishing control of their future, which is perhaps the worst way to cope with a challenge.

Mind Over Matter
In her book Mindset, psychologist Carol Dweck summarizes research on young people’s attitudes. The power of a person’s cognitive stance toward a challenge is staggering. In one study, a group of equally talented young students was randomly divided into two subgroups. Subgroup A was told, “This is like a game. These are really fun math problems. Try to do as many as you can in the time allotted.” Subgroup B was told, “This is like a test. These are very difficult math problems that most kids can’t do. Try to do as many as you can in the time allotted.”

When the data were analyzed, most kids in Subgroup A got through more problems and calculated more correct answers than most kids in Subgroup B. Both groups received the same problem set, but the group that approached the task as a fun game performed significantly better than the group that believed the test was a nearly impossible task. Mindset matters. Research done by Dweck and others has proven this point over and over.

When young people shape their mindsets by declaring that certain skills are not part of who they are, then underperformance is inevitable, even when the building blocks of those skills are inborn. (We have innate capacities to learn not only math but also grammar. The statement, “I’m not a language person,” is absurd on several levels.) If we want the young people we serve to achieve great things, then we must imbue them with optimism about what is possible. Cynics misinterpret this aspect of great leadership as delusional. In fact, adopting a “growth mindset”—where one believes that improvement is possible—is both realistic and scientifically sound.

Keep Trying
In practice, skilled leaders can coach growth mindsets by saying things such as

  • “The more effort you put in, the more likely you are to succeed.”
  • “You’ve come this far, which leads me to believe that more learning is possible.”
  • “Although you’re currently struggling with this skill, you can already do the first part.”
  • “Each time you attempt this, you’re learning something.”
  • “It can be discouraging to fail, and progress is often slow, but you’re here. That’s a start.”
  • “What is one small thing that you’re willing to do to take the next step?”

Each of these is a variation on the maxim, “It’s not how you fall; it’s how you get up.” Thomas Edison stole a lot of ideas about alternating current from Nikola Tesla, but it’s fair to give Edison credit for inventing the incandescent lightbulb. When asked how he invented a successful lightbulb (one that burned for more than a minute or two), he is said to have remarked, “I have not failed. I just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

So the next time a youngster tells you that he or she is not a math person, not a sports person, or not an arts person, remind them that they are a human being. And that means substituting “I can’t do _____” with “I’m getting better at _____.” If you ask a group of adults, “Who wants to come up front and draw a picture?” nobody will raise a hand. We become inhibited as we age, less willing to try, less willing to risk looking dumb. If you ask a group of kindergarteners the same question, they’ll all raise their hands.

It Counts More At Camp
By design, camp is an ideal setting in which to create a realistic mindset of optimism and possibility. We offer young people new opportunities in a supportive environment. Stated more colloquially: Camp is about gathering kids to try new activities with cool counselors. Stated succinctly: Under the guise of play, we build grit.

At camp, we make it OK to try and fail. Even better, we make it the norm to try, fail, laugh, learn, and try again. Remember, we are all math people. Count yourself in.

Dr. Christopher Thurber is a psychologist, author, and father. He serves on the faculty of Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, N.H., and is the director of content for Expert Online Training. To book a workshop, purchase DVDs, or access leadership resources, visit