It's Never Too Late to Start. My Story of Learning Math - Part I

This time I wanted to post something a bit different. I wanted to share my personal history of how I became interested in mathematics and started studying it. My story is certainly not typical, proving that there is no one right way to get into mathematics. I hope it will encourage people of all ages and from different backgrounds to get to know this amazing subject. (Also because this story is much longer than I expected, I divided it into few parts, this one being the first.)

When you say that you are interested in mathematics, people usually assume that you were a "math person" for your whole life. This certainly wasn't true in my case. Since the early childhood - up to high school - I was always reading a lot of books. I also dabbled with writing, so people naturally assumed I will become a writer or a journalist. I believed that as well.

I never had particular interest in mathematics. I was neither good nor bad at math, simply average. It was just something that never grabbed my attention.

When starting university, I ended up choosing cultural studies major, hoping to cultivate my growing interests in literature, movies and music.

However I very soon realised that these studies were not at all what I have expected. We studied a lot of philosophy topics that I believed were pure nonsense and pseudo intellectual babble. I found myself often disagreeing with my professors and trying to debate them.

On the other hand, we also had obligatory logic classes. And these classes were actually much more mathematical then you might expect. Soon I found myself solving problems from propositional logic or even basic set theory. And I kind of liked it. I wasn't fascinated yet, but I felt that studying logic would be a great tool when debating with my professors.

But being in opposition got tiring really fast. So in the end I decided that cultural studies is not for me and I switched my major to philosophy. It's important to mention that in Poland, where I come from, "switching major" means basically starting university from scratch as if you just finished high school. So you can see that this was not an easy decision and something quite risky.

While studying philosophy I had a pleasure to learn more logic, this time even more formal and mathematical, including some topics involving numbers and proving theorems by induction. At this point I got very curious about higher, university level mathematics. I tried to grab calculus textbook and study it by myself, but a bar was much too high. I wasn't able to understand the definition of a limit, no matter how many examples I have seen and how many times I have read the definition.

It became obvious that I needed some kind of training.

In Poland, one of the high school final exams is math exam, coming in two versions: basic (the one I have taken) and advanced, which was not obligatory and intended for people interested in studying math heavy subjects on a university. So I decided to take this advanced math exam, 2 years after finishing high school.

My neighbour just happened to had passed this exam, so I borrowed (and never returned by the way) textbooks from her. I was basically relearning all high school mathematics, but at more challenging level. It was both extremely enjoyable and frustrating. Being sure that you have a proper answer to then discover that you misunderstood the question entirely really makes you want to tear up the textbook.

But I pushed through for almost a year and retook the exam. In Poland we grade these exams in percents, 100% meaning you have made no mistakes.

I got 46% percent.

Quite a weak score, but it was possibly enough to change major again and try to get into some kind of mathematics program.

At this point I was so fascinated with the possibility of finally understanding the contents of my calculus textbook, that I decided to switch majors once again...

Was it a good decision? I will write about it in the next part of this series... Stay tuned!