The fastest way to talk yourself out of a successful career is to hold fast to the idea that you’re “not a math person,” and yet many workers do just that. Why? Because they believe that people are either good at something, or they’re not — even though evidence strongly suggests otherwise.
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In a recent article in The Atlantic, economics professor Miles Kimball and finance professor Noah Smith provide compelling arguments that the math ability most of us need to do our jobs — high-school math, in other words — is learned, not genetically determined.
“We believe that the idea of ‘math people’ is the most self-destructive idea in America today,” write Kimball and Smith. “The truth is, you probably are a math person, and by thinking otherwise, you are possibly hamstringing your own career. Worse, you may be helping to perpetuate a pernicious myth that is harming underprivileged children — the myth of inborn genetic math ability.”
What stops us from learning, according to Kimball and Smith? A pattern that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
For example, when kids are in school, some students are better prepared than others. Their parents might have prepped them at home, or they have access to tutors and other support that other students don’t have. Those prepared students tend to do better on tests than unprepared students, even if they have the same ability to start out with.
The unprepared kids might attribute their lower grades to “not being math people,” and thus invest less effort into doing better on subsequent tests, while the students with more support attribute their As to natural ability. Both proceed to get grades that reflect their image of themselves as students — not because one group is smarter than the other, but because the students who think of themselves as being good at math work harder.
The students who are “good at math” are more likely to go on to choose majors in STEM fields, which generally lead to higher-paying jobs. Even after graduation, within non-math-focused fields, employees who are confident about their math skills will be more likely to aim for roles that involve analyzing metrics or managing budgets.
The good news is that if math is a learned skill, and not an innate ability, it’s never too late to play catch up and put yourself in a better position, career-wise.
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