I don’t know about you, but I’ve always been good at math.
That still didn’t change the fact that when I started my Engineering degree, I prayed that Calculus wouldn’t ruin my next four years. I heard hundreds of horror stories about it around campus.
But, to my pleasant surprise, by the time I was halfway through my sophomore year I had already passed all the terrifying courses offered by the Applied Mathematics Department.
The thing is, I wasn’t just born with innate mathematical abilities—there’s a reason I’ve been good at it this whole time.
And I didn’t figured out what that reason was until recently, when I got a flashback to the precise moment when I acquired that superpower.
I was about ten years old and just starting fifth grade.
New class, new teachers, moving up from the elementary grades to the “grown up” leagues. Classes had just started and we were all still getting used to not being treated as the little kids in the school.
At that point, I had a pretty neutral relationship to math.
I didn’t love it, but I didn’t hate it either.
All that was about to change one morning when I got called up to the blackboard to solve an algebra problem.
I can’t fully recall what it was, except that it had to do something with triangles and the Pythagorean theorem. I wasn’t sure how to solve it but I remember completing the equation in a way that simply made sense to me, knowing inside I was just winging it and it would be all wrong.
I still remember my shaky hands writing on that blackboard. I’m a leftie but I wrote it all with my right hand, without even noticing.
When I finished, the teacher, to my surprise, praised me for how well I had reasoned through and solved the problem.
Just imagine the look on my face.
I think this was the first time a teacher really praised me.
And she didn’t just do this in front of the class; when the day was over, she tracked down my father on the school grounds and told him about “the smart boy she had in her class, how good he was at math, and how well he had thought about and resolved the equation.”
I was completely stunned.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was a turning point for me.
From that moment on, I considered myself good at math. In fact, I enjoyed math, and I’ve held on to that belief for the rest of my life.
And, guess what, because of it I have been good at math. And, by extension, abstract thinking, logic, algorithms, etc. (which is a really convenient thing for a programmer).
But…what happened that day?
What’s the real reason I’ve been good at math?
The Search for an Identity
What happened to me was a perfect example of neuroplasticity put into practice.
One of our minds’ important functions, especially in the early years, is to form a self-image.
This self-image is made up of different identities that we absorb from our surroundings. They come from our parents, friends, and teachers but also from the various experiences and life lessons that we collect along the way, or, better said, from our interpretations of them.
Here’s an example of how this subtle mechanism works in our minds:
You run into an old friend you haven’t seen for a while walking down the street with his wife and toddler. You greet each other and then you say, “Hi!” to the child, adding the typical “He’s gotten so big!” to the parents before you start the conventional small talk a situation like this requires.
When you say goodbye to one another, your friend asks the child to say goodbye to you. He refuses and hides behind his mother’s legs (remember: he’s meeting you for the first time. Ever.)
The parents, then, wanting to avoid embarrassment at their child’s noncompliance, say, “Oh, he’s just a bit shy, that’s all.“
These kinds of phrases seem so innocent—polite little throw-aways—but they’re really not.
These are identity-forming sentences that come from a highly influential source during a very sensitive formative age, so they could have huge repercussions.
With enough repetition, it’s highly probable that the child ends up unconsciously absorbing this identity and makes it part of their self-image.
Without fully realizing it, the child will start to act and think in ways that matches the self-image they’ve been given. That’s what happened to me: I studied harder at math trying to live up to the belief that I was good at it (I told you it wasn’t genetics.)
Was the child actually shy because he didn’t want to say goodbye to a total stranger?
Sure, it’s possible. But I bet if we watched how the child plays with other kids at the playground, he wouldn’t seem shy to us at all.
What Are Your Identities?
We’ve been subjected to this process—and doing it to ourselves, too—our entire lives, until one day we finally end up with a self-image that we believe is complete and accurate.
This is just the way I am. I love this. I hate that. I’m good at math, but I’m terrible at dancing. I’m shy. I’m bad at remembering things. I’m funny. I’m a mess. You can’t trust me. I’m skinny. I have thick bones. I finish what I start. People like me. I’m loyal. I’m serious. People scare me. I’m bad at sports. I’m not very creative. I’m committed. I’m irresponsible. I’m strong.
We treat these identities as reliable reflections of reality.
But, in fact, it’s the other way around: we create our reality to reflect our identities and the beliefs we have about ourselves.
Over time, and because of neuroplasticity playing its part, these beliefs transform us: neural connections are formed in the brain, beliefs and points of view are established. All of them shaping how we approach every situation we face, how we act, and what kind of personality we display to others.
But, here’s the thing: none of these identities are completely, 100% true.
I’m not inherently good at math.
I wasn’t born with that gift, that’s for sure. I was just lucky enough to have someone with influence gift me with this identity.
It’s only because I believed in it enough that I turned it into a reality (basically by enjoying the process of studying them—it’s not rocket science).
Now, when I look back at my own life, I can find a ton of evidence supporting the idea that I’m good at math: good math grades in high school, passing advanced university courses without much struggle, being good with complex thinking and algorithms. And because of my self-image, my mind tend to focus on those memories.
But the funny thing is, if I think back hard enough and widen my mind’s perspective, I can also find evidence that demonstrates the exact opposite conclusion. There are pieces of evidence all along the course of my life that I could use to demonstrate that I’m bad at math (a ton, actually).
There’s an interesting effect that takes place here and it’s worth pointing it out.
Even though we’re confronted with all kinds of objective evidence, our mind filters it and only lets things through that support and strengthen our existing beliefs. Anything that would challenge our self-understanding gets filtered out of our conscious awareness.
This means that it takes more work for me to find evidence that I’m not good at math. It’s not that it’s not there, it’s just that my belief in my math abilities filters it out.
Redesigning Ourselves for Success
It’s true that during our early years we’re like sponges, disposed to absorbing identities (for the parents out there: you’re basically a walking factory of potential identities for your kids. Just saying.)
But that doesn’t mean things are hopeless once you’re an adult.
Just because an identity was easily absorbed or has been with you for years doesn’t mean it’s permanent. It also doesn’t make it any more true than any of the other identities you want to adopt as an adult.
The capacity to reconfigure our brain stays with us our whole lives, which means it’s never too late to create new identities and replace those that no longer serve us. In fact, we’re continually redefining ourselves through our thoughts and self-assigned identities.
So the good news is: you don’t have to be who you’ve always believed you were.
Especially if it’s limiting you in some way.
In fact, one of the advantages of being an adult is that we can make better use of our conscious mind.
We have the power and potential to understand which identities we could adopt to help us become a better version of ourselves and which outdated identities are limiting us on our journey toward being who we want to be and living the life and the experiences we want to live.
You can use this awareness to redesign yourself and become the person you want to be.
But for now, let’s exercise that awareness: leave a comment and share some of those beliefs about yourself.