Are we sure it's OK to be smart?

Imagine Olympic athletes apologizing on TV for being muscular and agile. Or an engraving on a lipstick tube that reaffirms “It is OK to be beautiful.” Alternatively, try visualizing a clothing store ad luring us in with the words “Nothing is wrong with being well-dressed.” Sounds rather unreal. But how about the disclaimer on the back of a set of Brain Quest flash cards for kids that states “It's O.K. to be Smart!” Does it seem similarly ridiculous? This one is actually real. A great toy company feels that it should warn us not to worry about being a nerd. Are we sure it is OK to be smart? Are we serious that it is just OK???? Why don't we say: “It's cool to be smart!” or “It's awesome to be smart!” And why do we need this affirmation at all? Shouldn't it be obvious?

Growing up on the other side of the world, I was brought up to believe that it is as admirable to be smart as it is to be strong, and that exercising our brain is as important as exercising the muscles of our body. Smart kids were respected in schools and colleges, and admired as much as beautiful and athletic kids. Therefore I was especially surprised to learn how vastly different the attitudes are towards science and sports, here in the US.

It is fascinating to observe our infatuation with famous athletes, the unmatched popularity of school sports, the pressure we frequently put on our kids to succeed in sports, and the lengths we go to help them achieve it. Who among us has not risen early on a Sunday for 7am hockey practices, swim meets, or baseball clinics? Or maybe you’ve driven or flown to out-of-state competitions in gymnastics; or changed family summer vacation plans to match a 9-year-old’s football training schedule? Why don't we treat science and, math in particular, in a similar manner? Why has pampering our bodies become much more acceptable and admirable than pampering our minds?

Perhaps it is due to the materialistic reward that high achievement in sports brings to the famous few (usually by means of advertising endorsements). But among the self-made millionaires and billionaires, there are significantly more people with math and economic acumen than athletic prowess. And this is not only true on the level of super-achievers. On average, mathematicians earn $94,960 annually according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A January 2009 study of the best and worst professions by, rated mathematician as the best career, taking into account work environment, income, employment outlook, physical demands, and stress (Ref 1).

Ok, the financial reward may be comparable, but it seems that becoming the next Shaun White, Michael Phelps or Lindsey Vonn is more achievable than making a fortune with math. We share our living rooms with these athletes daily via TV, we read their inspiring biographies, follow their advice on what to eat, how to dress or behave, and fantasize being just like them. Well, with only around 17,000 professional athletes in the US and with a total census population of around 308,788,000, chances of becoming one are only around 1 out of 18,000 or 0.0055%. Are those statistics pointing to the rarity of athletic success true? Take a look around. Chances are you are not familiar personally with a famous athlete. But you probably know someone on your street or in your extended family who made a million from a start-up company, very likely with the help of math. Check out the business class section on your next flight: do these people look like professional athletes or Internet entrepreneurs polishing the statistical graphs of their presentations? Sounds like math may be a ball worth catching.

Sports and math are universal languages anyone can speak and work in, anywhere on Earth. Similar to athletes who can easily train anywhere and hop from one country's team to another, those fluent in the language of math have the whole world open to them as well. While we speak different languages, pray to different gods, and celebrate different holidays, most people on our planet use Hindu-Arabic numerals and study the same laws of logic. A math degree expands the geography of a job search way beyond national borders. Just compare this to a law or medical degree that frequently requires re-certification even when moving from one US state to another.

It does look convincing that math could offer an impressive combination of financial stability and job security along with comfort and low stress. And perhaps you happen to have a neighbor with a Yale math degree who leisurely works from home, travels around the world, and drives a Lexus. You may also recall Olympic stories of horrific sports injuries while comparing them to the paper cut math could inflict on you. Considering this all, you are becoming more convinced about the advantages of a math career. But what about the road to these achievements? The hours, days or years spent solving abstract equations, the tears and frustration that frequently accompany pages of exercises? Turns out that math's learning and achievement processes are intriguingly similar to that of sports. You have seen those tears before, on the high school grid irons, ski slopes and skating rinks, but you probably reacted to them differently.

Take for example, the following statement about sports:

Rigorous consistent practice strengthens your muscles, enables your brain to memorize specific movements, perfects and automates the whole pallet of possible movement patterns. Your body gains strength. You get better at sports and enjoy it more.

Now, substitute math lingo for sports lingo:

Rigorous consistent practice strengthens neural connections, enables your brain to memorize specific tricks, perfects and automates the whole pallet of possible solution approaches. Your expertise grows. You get better at math and enjoy it more.

Sounds quite similar and logical, right? Then why are we so stressed when our children bring home one or two extra pages of math homework? Why are we at a loss for words when kids complain of being bored when asked to do long lists of abstract exercises rather than a few applicable word problems? We would not ask a football coach to explain why our kid needs to do 20 repetitions of monotonous exercises during practice four times a week just to play 15 minutes at the local town competition. And most of us accept that it takes a year of weekly practices and daily stretching to learn to do a gymnastic cartwheel properly.

Whenever my own kids complain about math homework being difficult, I tell them that this is great. Their brain “muscles” (neural connections) strengthen and grow when being pushed over the comfort zone. Easy homework is like passing the ball back and forth with your little brother. Fun and relaxing, but it won't improve your athletic achievements. No muscle pain, no gain.

Many of us intuitively discover these math-sports similarities. One middle-school teacher wrote to me about her idea for a “math warm-up:”

I did not have research to prove this, but I used to tell my students on the day of a test to get to math class early. I suggested that they use the few minutes before class began to do "warm up" problems, so their brain was ready for the test. I felt that without the warm up it would take longer for their brain to accommodate to the new information it had to process, and the warm up got their mind ready for the material they would now have to think about. I thought about this with your analogy, because it is the same for athletes warming up their body before they add intensity to their workout, but in this case, it is a warm up for a math test.

Both math and sports require a lot of monotonous, deliberate practice to succeed. Frequently we find our progress at a plateau and this is exactly when parents' encouragement and support are crucial. Perfecting one approach or taking a shot at an alternative strategy takes a lot of patience and determination but eventually bumps you up a level.

What about those who believe that math capabilities are inherited: one either has or doesn't have math aptitude? My quick survey of some soccer dads (who brought their five-year old daughters to the Kindergarten soccer practice) revealed that most of them believe that girls are not as good at math as boys are. Some explained their answer was a result of observing substantially more men than women in the engineering and scientific fields. All were surprisingly unaware of a multitude of recent scientific studies, financed by our taxes, aimed at improving the future of our little soccer princesses. Studies demonstrating that math skills are equal across genders; that culture is a factor in female math achievement and that girls’ confidence in math is dampened by parents' and teachers' gender stereotypes (Ref 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7).

So, we have entered an infinite loop here: by expecting less and demanding less from our girls, and kids in general, we encourage low performance and interest. This feeds our stereotypes and continues the vicious cycle. To break it, let's carefully look at the messages we send to our kids. Would you believe that these scientific studies showed that by merely suggesting to kids that they may not have racial or gender predisposition to math you can cause them to perform worse than they would have otherwise (Ref 8)? Or that by simply changing the class room decor from a Star Wars style to more feminine, you can make girls feel they belong and foster stronger interest in computer science (Ref 9)? It sounds like our math and science confidence is unbelievably fragile.

But then I recollect observing my six-year-old daughter on a ski slope recently. Frustrated with the cold air, wet snow and bulky clothes, she was trying to go up a tiny hill. Every other step she was sliding back or falling down with her skis crossed up in the air. We were both at the end of our patience and ready to give up. Until a fairytale ski instructor passed by, stopped for a few minutes and sprayed my daughter with an abundance of encouraging epithets: “You are doing amazing! Look at you, you are a natural skier. Great job.” It changed everything. My daughter beamed a victory smile, relaxed, and her patience was recharged for climbing the hill; she had fun and now is eager to go back.

So, how can we, as parents, help our kids become more comfortable, interested and successful in math, similar to the ways we support them in sports?

It is actually much easier than it sounds. We call ourselves soccer moms and dads even if we don't play soccer. One does not need to be an expert in math to become a Math Mom or Math Dad. Success in any kind of learning is enhanced by encouragement and challenge, and inhibited by threats or shame. Think of how we challenge and support our kids on the football field or ski slopes. Think of those trophies that everyone gets just for trying. The “Go, Alex, go!” you scream till you lose your voice. The pride we take when our child scores a homerun Recall how we share the excitement of our kids’ successes in sports and work on their failures. Why not adapt a similar mindset for math learning.

Think of the aura of adoration around successful athletes. We point out athlete role models on TV, in books and magazines. We buy those great Matt Christopher sports series books, we read and share Sports Illustrated stories. Those tear-jerking hero-making Superbowl or Olympic biographies that we re-tell to our kids to encourage them to practice and build perseverance. Remember how you are carefully avoiding negative stereotyping of athletes cursing, drinking or showcasing other misbehavior. When was the last time you switched off a TV program that featured smart kids as losers and unpopular geeks? Probably never. Can we then blame the kids for not wanting to be such unpopular geeks and crazy “beautiful minds”?

How about concentrating on the cool Stanford graduate, ocean-surfing Google founders that created something that comes as close as possible to saving the world by uniting it? Or showcasing mathematicians that apply their skills to create Mars mission or household robots, Avatar-style special effects, data analysis solutions that suggest the next movie you may enjoy watching or beer you would like based on your past ratings. It is not hard to find such role models.

Like sports, math is everywhere and it is not so hard to present it to our kids as a toy, a tool, and a friend. No one will stay indifferent when you reveal how prime numbers are used as weapons in secret message coding in war and peace, describe why 50% off on top of a 30% discount won’t give you 80% off, or share your financial insight on whether to buy or make school lunches and what to do with the money saved. Just imagine, science Olympiads and robotics competitions presented like the X-Games on TV, with groomed Rodarte-dressed geeks who tell your kids that nothing is impossible.

To expand the world of wonderful math possibilities for our children, we need to apply the same steps to math as we have been so masterfully using to encourage our kids in sports. Motivate, challenge, promote concentration, praise, share the excitement of successes and work together on failures, showcase inspiring role models, and avoid negative stereotypes.

And most importantly, never apologize for being smart.

Matt Damon as math whiz in the movie Good Will Hunting

P.S. Brain Quest has recently changed their logo to “It's fun to be smart!”

For more information on math see the NSF report:
Math: What's the Problem?


  1. CNN & CareerBuilder: 10 jobs for math whizzes

  2. Boston Globe: Study finds culture a factor in female math achievement

  3. Girls' confidence in math dampened by parents' gender stereotypes

  4. Highbeam: Math skills are equal among genders in primary and secondary school

  5. ScienceDaily: Few Gender Differences in Math Abilities, Worldwide Study Finds

  6. Proceedings of National Academy of Science: Female teachers' math anxiety affects girls' math achievement. Feb 2, 2010, vol. 107, no. 5, 1860-1863

  7. ScienceDaily: How Dads Influence Their Daughters' Interest In Math

  8. CommunicationCurrents: Stereotype Threat and Female Student's Math performance

  9. Science Notes: of Geeks and Girls


  1. Replies
    1. It was reposted as a guest blogger.
      You can see that this is the original article from the reference links.

      Also Boston Globe has credited this site for the article.


    shows the packaging being described here, but in (partial) defense of Brain Quest, they also have trademarked "It's Fun to Be Smart":
    (I see you close with that info.)

    Also, some of us do support our kids in their science endeavors: I've just made plane and motel reservations for my son's third entry in the state science fair, taking off 3 days of work to escort him (incidentally, he's in the math/science category).

    IEEE Spectrum magazine is a good source for role models (engineers, rather than mathematicians, but you seemed more interested in those who use math than the much smaller number who create it).

    I don't agree with you that piles of math drill is useful---good math training involves stretching the mind, doing challenging problems not repeating over and over things already mastered. (To use your sports metaphor, one doesn't build muscle mass by lifting paper clips.)

  3. Just found this and sent it along to many different people. Foudn it changing my own persepctive as well!

  4. Love your article... will surely pass this on... thanks you for saying and putting into words what I have also always felt.. ;-D

    Great stuff!!

  5. Nice work.

    It's even harder (at least in some ways) for kids who are high-end in (non-math) language. Most adults think they're pretty good at reading and writing, and can (and sometimes will) argue whether the high-end reader/writer does, in fact, have any special talent. It's easier to go and solve a problem that 98 percent of adults either never could do or have forgotten how to do.

  6. Thats quiet an analogy, I liked the comparisons between the math and sports lingo. Maybe the traditional trend of teaching kids is not here anymore. Children are much more smarter these days.

  7. No matter how difficult schooling may be for your children, as parents, we must do our best to motivate or encourage them to be good on their studies.

  8. A really nice article!Thank you very much for sharing!

  9. Thats quiet an analogy. I really lice your article and your comparisons between the math and sports lingo. hank you very much for sharing!

  10. I love your article!. thanks you for saying and putting into words what I have also always felt.. ;-D

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