Review date: January 5, 2023 — 8 min read
A Mind For Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra)
I’ve been trying to wean myself off self-help books. I find them to be deceitful. They make me feel like I’m learning and improving without having to put in any effort. They offer tasty yet fickle advice that leaves me feeling motivated but no wiser. They’re nice little bundles of dopamine. They allow us to feel like we’re looking after ourselves, without doing any strenuous work. And that’s assuming they contain any meaningful advice or wisdom in the first place.
I’m painting with broad brushstrokes when I say all this and there are of course exceptions. Furthermore, there are some genuinely great self-help books out there, but without integrating the advice buried within them into my own life, I find myself exactly where I was before reading them (this is a result of my own laziness or a misguided belief that’ll subconsciously and naturally begin to action their advice).
Despite my efforts to abstain, their tantalising siren song manages to seduce me from time to time. Most recently this happened with A Mind For Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra). After reading about it on Derek Sivers’ blog, I found my defences compromised and my guard down. I simply could not help myself and purchased a copy for myself.
If I am to be honest, the thing that actually caused me to buy it is my love-hate relationship with numbers and science. I find some parts, like calculus and Computer Science, rewarding and stimulating. Other parts like Chemistry and trigonometry I really just don’t smaak.
Side note: it perplexes me that I grapple with trig, given its proximity to calculus and their shared relation to change.
I bought it hoping it would bring some understanding to this love-hate relationship but also enable me to be a more effective learner.
Barbara Oakley’s book was fine.
The book is packed with practical suggestions, clarifying information and explanations to improve our ability to learn and problem solve. Much of it has been discussed in other books (think Atomic Habits, Power of Habit, etc).
However, A mind for numbers does a great job of condensing and distilling a lot of this information. The issue being that it can be rather repetitive if you’ve read any of those books before. I don’t think it would be entirely fair to fault the author for this. That said, a few more novel takes or concepts would have greatly benefited the book. What Oakley is able to do rather uniquely is walk us through her own transformation, from flunkee to professor. It shades the book with a belief that our own transformation is possible. It's worth mentioning that Oakley does a fantastic job citing references throughout.
If you would like some practical tips/suggestions to improve your ability to learn (especially when it comes to daunting topics), or would just like a better understanding of how we learn I'd suggest picking this book up.
We tend to think in two modes: focused and diffused thinking. Focused thinking is active and intentional, like sitting down and trying to solve a problem or learn something. Our brains are shifted into a higher gear that requires deliberate focus.
Diffused thinking is what happens in the background after we’ve done some focused thinking. It is when our brain subconsciously chews on problems.
Sadly there are no silver bullets when it comes to learning. If we want to master something we have to perform both focused and diffused thinking. We need to put in the hard hours with focused thinking and just as crucially give our brains some time to make sense of it all and connect the dots.
When it comes to focused thinking, Oakley stresses the importance of actually doing the hard work. For example, if we are trying to solve a challenging problem it’s critical we actually sit down, focus and try to solve it.
This means no peeking at answers, no mindless re-reading of explanations, suppressing distractions and fighting procrastination and actually having a proper crack at it. Even if we don’t solve the problem, it is vital we spend bursts of time working on trying to solve it. We have to engage our brains and stare down the beast in front of us.
If we are able to do so regularly (mind you, not for hours on end but rather shorter sessions across days or weeks) for a particular set of problems or for a new subject we’re learning, once difficult concepts are easy to recall and work with. Thus lowering the processing power required for our brains to incorporate them into learning and problem solving.
Building on this, it is practically worthless to try substitute practice and active engagement with parrot learning (especially in maths and science), senseless walls of highlighting in our notes and redoing problems we already have an expert grasp of. We absolutely have to dip into the icy uncomfortable waters of the unknown and challenging.
There’s a large portion of the book dedicated to improving our ability to do focused thinking/focused work, namely through crushing procrastination. Again, much of the tools and tips provided, I felt, are pretty well known already.
Dancing the Tango with Focused thinking is diffused thinking. When we go to the gym, we do our workout but then also have to take the time to rest. That’s what diffused thinking is for our brains. It’s the rest period after some focused thinking. For example when we’re sleeping or when we go for a walk. It is the time where we are not actively thinking about a problem, but our brains are subconsciously bringing shape and understanding to them.
You’ve probably experienced this yourself if you’ve ever spent all day on a difficult problem or subject, only to wake up the next morning with an ‘aha’ moment and everything just seems to click into place. That’s diffused thinking, our brain organising and making sense of the meaty work we do during focused thinking.
Oakley goes into depth, explaining the significance of focused working, followed by disconnect from the topic at hand so as to encourage diffused thinking.
These two modes of thinking, coupled with:
the value of ‘chunking’ (connecting related chunks of data in our brains, freeing up working memory),
the dangers of procrastination when it comes to learning and working,
the power of building discipled work/study habits,
and the importance of being intentional about the work we want to do (journals/todo lists, managing deadlines, eating the frog and so on)
make up most of the book.
There is a lot more nuance to the above covered in the book, including detailed walkthroughs of the various techniques one can adopt to assist with challenges in studying and understanding topics (I’d recommend buying the book if you want a more sophisticated and detailed guide). As I’ve alluded to already, I was a bit disappointed in what I got out of the book. I was hoping for new ideas or perhaps a fundamental reimagining of numbers/science and how to work with them.
Instead it was a lot of what I’ve seen and read before, just condensed and centralised into one book. With that, if you are a student and you haven’t been sucked into the big hitters of the self-help world, this book will most likely offer you a lot of value with your studies and learning. Furthermore, the book leverages a lot of the techniques it expounds which helps in retaining the information it contains. It also has exercises in each chapter to bolster the likelihood of you integrating some of the techniques sprinkled throughout into your life. I found this to be a great testimony to the efficiency for the techniques themselves as it genuinely helped me remember the chapters and techniques.
I wanted to mention that I believe it did somewhat answer why I struggle with Chemistry and trigonometry. Since both subjects didn’t ‘click’ quickly for me, I think I am bad at them and as such I have put off really trying to understand them. This creates a bit of a loop where I continue to put off putting in the hard hours to understand them, therefore they are still difficult for me, therefore I have little passion when it comes to learning either subject so I’ll put off trying to learn them. My varsity days are long behind me, so unfortunately I don’t think my relationship with either subject will be changing any time soon.
A Mind For Numbers is not for those looking to overhaul of their understanding of numbers and science. Nor does it come bundled with groundbreaking ideas. It is better used as a study guide and as a tool for enabling better learning and understanding. I probably could have given it a miss, but I’m not sure I’d be singing the same tune were I still in varsity or high-school and fighting Chemistry.