Thursday, August 20, 2009

Fear of Failure

I often talk about liking math, but what is more true is that math keeps me energized and excited to keep pursuing it. And I think part of the reason for that is that, with math I have a genuine fear of failure.

I was sitting in my calculus class last night feeling a familiar mixture of slight despair and worry over the material. It's not that it's hard, exactly. It just suggests that horrible things are coming down the pike, for which I will need the slightly scary stuff I'm working on right now. Am I smart enough for this class?

I mean, yes, I am. I must be. I am almost certainly above average in my class, likely in the top quarter. If most people are going to pass this class then I can do well in it.

That's what logic tells me, but it's not how I feel.

If I were taking a 400-level English class, there would be no doubt in my mind that if I put in a reasonable amount of effort, I would absolutely kill it. Ditto History, or any other subject that relies on knowledge, reading, and the manipulation of ideas. And I think that feeling of certainty - the very strong linkage between work and outcome - tends to make me a bit lax and uninterested.

Obviously I am also unmotivated by feeling that no effort of mine can make a difference. Set me at the start of a marathon and you won't see me trying. But I think the thrill and fear of not knowing whether I can do math (whatever math is before me) keeps me going, keeps me trying, keeps me signing up for more courses.

This explains why I'm majoring in something that isn't, honestly, a great strength for me.


Sally said...

Interesting that you've found a sweet spot between blase and hopeless with math. I'm trying to introspect on whether I have any kind of similar thing going on with math or other subjects, and it doesn't immediately resonate with me strongly. There is definitely a sense in which a "challenge" is attractive (where challenge is something doable but hard enough to make you do some work and feel proud of accomplishing it), but I mostly am excited about subjects that seem interesting. I don't know.

God, I really now want to see the post on the Tam (Relative) Strengths and Weaknesses. Math is not a great strength of mine either, which is part of why I feel sort of kick ass for getting as far as I have with it.

Tam said...

I don't think I have a whole post in me about my strength and weaknesses, but according to my own perceptions, my strongest academic "things" are perhaps

* taking a small amount of information that makes up a system and applying it to a lot of complex situations (e.g., apologetics, law)

* formulating systems of patterns and symbols (e.g., divination, English essays about Oedipal themes in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight)

Some of my weaknesses might include

* learning large quantities of information

* remembering stories or happenings

* remembering things about specific people or places

I am about average at mathematical intuition, which is to say, not very good. To the extent that math is a formalized system from which one can draw conclusions, I am reasonably strong at it, but to the extent that it involves understanding the actual subject material of math, I am somewhat weak.