Incompetence and Diligence


I was extremely distressed on Tuesday after my topology midterm was returned to me. I have always felt that I could get by on hard work if nothing else, but after seeing my result, I began to question my competence altogether. It has been a long time since I last thought that I actually had talent for anything, but at least my fascination and willingness to work hard at mathematics have made me succeed. After seeing my result, I wanted a temporary escape from mathematics, but I didn’t know how to achieve that. I decided I would go over to CCS for a few hours and not do math. I brought my copy of Gödel, Escher, Bach, two Boccherini CDs, and some math problems. That’s not a particularly good way not to do math, but after reading a bit of Gödel, Escher, Bach, I felt that it would not be harmful for me to return to mathematics, so I worked on the problems and solved one. After that, I felt a bit better.

After that, I had some analysis homework left to do, so I thought about doing it for a long time before I actually got around to doing it. For some reason, it took me a long time to prove one of the very easy problems, but eventually I figured out how it should be done and then TeXed my solutions.

By Wednesday, I had discussed the topology exam with two of my fellow students, and both had done even worse than I. That made me feel slightly more competent still, but I was nonetheless still questioning my abilities. I still think I should discuss the result with the professor, but I have always found it very difficult to talk to adults, and I don’t see it getting any easier the second I walk into Prof. Long’s office. Nonetheless, I think I will try. If it ends in disaster, what have I lost?

My confidence was almost fully restored around 1:30PM today after I looked at the results of the IM norm tournament at the Mechanics Institute Chess Club, and I saw a comment discussing Matthew Ho’s good result despite his low rating and young age. I then decided to look at his results in some tournaments, which is much easier now that the Member Service Area of the USCF website exists. I was shocked by some of his low ratings when he was very young, but of course his results quickly improved drastically. It was very strange to me to see the people I respect as terrific chessplayers having ratings below 1000, but I learned that I am not the only one who has to work hard to succeed. I suppose everyone works hard to succeed, but it just seems that some people don’t, and then I just feel incompetent.

I also went to my first Math Department Tea today. It was fun hearing math people discussing random (mathematical and nonmathematical) topics.

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About Simon

Hi. I'm Simon Rubinstein-Salzedo. I'm a mathematics postdoc at Dartmouth College. I'm also a musician; I play piano and cello, and I also sometimes compose music and study musicology. I also like to play chess and write calligraphy. This blog is a catalogue of some of my thoughts. I write them down so that I understand them better. But sometimes other people find them interesting as well, so I happily share them with my small corner of the world.
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13 Responses to Incompetence and Diligence

  1. mousie1389 says:

    Cool! Math Department Teas?
    Do you think there is such a thing as “talent”? Are people “good” due to innate ability or hard work or both? You’re certainly not incompetent. Just take a look at where you are and what you can do. Learning (very large) amounts of new stuff is always tough, so don’t worry about it. Just keep on truckin’. 😀

    • Simon says:

      The math department has a tea at 3PM every weekday.
      Yes, I do think there is such a thing as “talent.” People are good at what they do very various reasons, including but not limited to talent and hard work. Having talent makes life so much easier. Maybe it’s better having to work hard for everything. I don’t know.

  2. z9r4c3 says:

    bleh. Matthew Ho goes to my school. Is he really that good?

    • Simon says:

      Well, he’s a sophomore, and he’s almost a master. Some people might not find that impressive, but I do.

      • goreism says:

        porky
        hehehe. i’ve actually started studying chess, now that there’s this guy on my floor who’s 1900. we play a lot, and he rapes me almost as much. guess i’m kind of lucky to have him insult my chess ability on a daily basis 😀 maybe i’ll actually move into C class. anyway, whenever i despair, he reminded me that he’s played many thousands of games (and thousands more than i have o.O) he tells me that even a lazy and stupid individual as myself can evnetually rise to his level! (though admittedly the more i play him the less chances he offers me for my ever becoming better.)

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