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I have been thinking of asking for help for a few months now but posting in a public forum like this is intimidating. Still, I am currently in a university studying mathematics as an undergrad. I took quite a few knocks a few months back when I failed to qualify for the universities of my choice and all the hard work for mathematical olympiads and hours of practice went up in smoke.Out of frustration and disappointment, I left math for a few months,doing nothing but staring at the ceiling. After coming to the university,I then tried doing math again and after a months, I tried to study linear algebra and analysis. I studied 30 pages of Rudin and then stopped; and then I studied those 30 pages, each time those 30 pages seemed to be as difficult as before but less interesting and now I am stuck.

I came to the conclusion that I cannot do math OR I have lost the motivation to. How do I get back to studying math?


Thank you everyone for your answers and comments. I have read them and I will try to get back up.

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"I am currently taking Differential Geometry and I love that class. Start with that. Its not as bad as analysis." Huh? Differential geometry for someone who is not comfortable with derivatives, implicit function theorem, etc.? How can it possibly work? –  fedja Oct 17 '13 at 9:46
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Maybe it's not about the math per se, but the absence of anyone to share it with. Having someone to share things with makes them so much more fun! Try joining a math group or something similar. –  Davio Oct 17 '13 at 13:05
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If you like programming, you might be interested in solving some Project Euler problems. I think they're fun. –  Cody Piersall Oct 17 '13 at 18:36
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This isn't a question about mathematics; if you substituted, say, English composition throughout for mathematics the question would be unchanged. How is this on-topic for this site? –  Eric Lippert Oct 17 '13 at 19:53
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More specifically: I am not a doctor. But (1) suffering a psychological blow to your self esteem, followed by (2) frustration, (3) disappointment, (4) months-long lassitude, (5) lack of motivation and discipline leading to giving up easily, (6) self doubt ("I can't do math"), (7) anhedonia -- failure to take pleasure in things you previously enjoyed, and finally (8) being the age most undergraduates are, are all strongly correlated with depression. This site is not a substitute for a doctor or therapist. Your university will have people who can help you; use them. –  Eric Lippert Oct 17 '13 at 22:39

15 Answers 15

up vote 44 down vote accepted

Disclaimer:

If you didn't consult your friends and/or parents on whether your situation is serious enough (i.e. requires specialist attention), then do it now. Major depressive disorder may have detrimental effects on your life and you should treat it accordingly. On the other hand, mild depression, melancholia, etc. may be temporary and may not require any professional treatment. Often those are normal human reactions and are nothing to be ashamed of.

Thanks to @EricLippert for his comment.


It depends on what motivates you generally. Naturally, first

  • Get enough sleep (but not too much).
  • Keep you body healthy (within reason, esp. if you have some disabilities).

As to the motivation, I observe three main factors:

  1. Pleasure – Math is fun and beautiful.
  2. Need – we (the world) need your math.
  3. Community – there are some cool guys among mathematicians.

You need to find what exactly works for you, but here are some tips:

  1. Math is fun and beautiful.
    • Look for some nice proofs, like those in Proofs from the Book.
    • Read Gödel, Escher, Bach.
    • There are also comics about math, e.g. Logicomix (one of the authors is a world-class researcher in theoretical computer science).
    • Find some other nice mathematical books, you can find some recommendations here.
    • Find some beautiful mathematical facts, you can find some here.
    • Try some nice online presentations like How to Fold a Julia Fractal.
    • There are even television series like Numb3rs; to put it mildly, it's not my favorite, but who knows, maybe it would work for you (it doesn't really matter what the IMDb ranking is, only if it remotivates you again).
    • Look at some highly voted questions and answers here, at math.SE, some are real pearls.
  2. I don't think this needs much commentary. There are many, many articles on why math is important and why it would be good for you to know it (and I think that would be even more so in the near future). I've never been interested in those, so I'm unable to recommend any, but try searching for it.
  3. Sometimes doing things is fun when in group, and math is no exception.
    • Imagine how music bands stick together, mathematicians very often collaborate and this is for a reason. One of them is that doing something with peers is just more fun than being alone in the cave.
    • Mathematicians like Tim Gowers and Terence Tao write blogs. You can learn a lot from them (but it might be complicated).
    • It's easier to get motivated when you have some examples of other motivated people (but be aware that you might also get demotivated).
    • Why don't you hang around with "us, the cool guys"? Answering and asking questions might also be a motivating experience (if you ignore those lazy bums that come only to get their homework solved).

Finally, this goes without saying, but I feel that is should be emphasized here: there are other domains, one of these might suit you better, do you really want to study math? If the only reason is that you do not wish to throw away all the hard work you did, then there are some good news: the skill you have acquired will stay with you in some form, or simply put, it made you smarter. Moreover, areas like physics, engineering or computer science use math a lot, and the math you know will directly help you there. Mathematics is everywhere, you don't need to be labeled as a mathematician to do mathematics.

I hope this helps and good luck! $\ddot\smile$

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Thanks for the book "Proofs from the book", it's awesome. –  Fabinout Oct 17 '13 at 17:15
    
@Fabinout Look also at other books from the linked list, the top part is definitely worth the time. –  dtldarek Oct 17 '13 at 19:05
    
+1 for GEB and teaching me how to make a smiley face! –  nsanger Oct 17 '13 at 22:49
    
Thank you. Indeed, math is what I want to do. –  Dust Oct 18 '13 at 12:02
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@Will There is yet one more significant reason why math is awesome which isn't mentioned explicitly (I'm not sure, but I hope it shows clear enough between the lines): the power to inspire. In fact, each of those comments above (including yours) is a testimony in itself $\ddot\smile$ –  dtldarek Oct 22 '13 at 21:06

Mathematics is difficult and if you lack confidence it'll be hard to keep going. Of course, not many people have confidence that they know a lot - actually most of us know that we know very little in the scope of things. However, I've seen that good mathematicians seem to be confident in their abilities to learn given enough effort and patience. Some learn fiendishly quickly and it can be discouraging to be among them but others like me really need our time to sit down and explore the definitions, theorems, etc. To survive in this game you need to be confident in yourself and a great thing to be confident about is work ethic. If you are able to put in a couple of hours into solid learning every day, you'll tackle almost any subject.

About studying itself - there are lots of different ways to go about it and some are more mind-numbing than the rest. The texts are dense, especially Rudin. You can't understand them the way you understand a novel when you read it. Actually, if the text is new to you, you cannot even read it with any appreciable speed. A good way to learn is to take it very slowly, sentence by sentence. Rip each sentence apart and see that you know each word and expression, and that you get the meaning of the words combined. Make diagrams and check your intuition. It takes keeping your foot on the brake because it's really easy to just run-off onwards and glaze over. It might seem like it would take forever to learn this way but it's more resilient.

You lost motivation in your studying because you faced many big failures in a short amount of time. Suddenly a lot of long hours of studying, writing applications and proof-reading letters seem like they have been for nothing. All of a sudden, you feel yourself burned out. I see nothing wrong in taking the kind of break that you took because it can be traumatizing. If you come back to math and feel still deep anxiety, I know how you feel. The problem is that math is difficult and we face a ratio of many failures for each success, and this seems to be mimicked in my friends' career paths too. This kind of ratio is absolutely toxic to confidence. You need to redefine what success means to you.

In my undergrad my successes were usually finishing an assignment, doing great on an exam, and occasionally solving a hard homework problem that bothered me for days. But as the years progress I faced more and more difficult problems. All of a sudden, assignments were incomplete, problems had holes in them, exams were not stellar, and hard problems remained unsolved. I lost a lot of confidence and was in a situation similar to yours several times. It's something a lot of math students face (at least among my peers). They all seem to meet their match that makes them or breaks them. What it takes is a shift of the mind. You are a mathematician and you can make your own definition and properties.

So here it goes. When there's failure in everything you do you gotta look for the small successes. You understood a paragraph - that's a success. You understood the idea behind a proof - that's also a success. You find an interesting property of some function - another win. One case down out of five - another success. Basically, when the stairs become too tall to scale, you gotta make your own ladder so you can climb up more easily.

When you focus on the small successes, there will be lot of them and failure will not bother you as much anymore. All of a sudden it wouldn't matter so much if the whole assignment is in or if you understand a whole chapter. You'll enjoy making the little steps and they'll eventually take you much further than trying to make bigger leaps.

I hope I'm not reading too much into your words. When I read your question I kind of saw myself as I was a few years ago and I wish someone would have told me what I know now.

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I highly recommend The Shape of Space by Jeffrey Weeks for its readability and fun factor. Imagine cross-sections of higher dimensional shapes! Build "impossible" surfaces with paper, scissors, and tape. It's a gentle, hands-on introduction to some important ideas in low-dimensional topology and differential geometry.

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I am currently taking differential geometry so thank you very much for the book recommendation. I am going to buy it. –  Lays Oct 17 '13 at 7:28

Doing what you like is the most important thing. If you do things because you feel that you have to, you'll end up resenting them. Of course, it's okay in the short term - we all have obligations - but forcing yourself to do something you don't enjoy, in the long term, is not sustainable.

You're still an undergrad, so you should focus on a varied diet, rather than gorging yourself full of the first thing you find. Imagine that you are at a buffet with a lot of time on your hands. The best thing to do is to get a small taste of everything. And if, by chance, you find something that you really like, good! Sail with it for a while!

Even the best mathematicians go through dry spells sometimes. The intelligent thing to do, then, is to put down the books, and do something else that you like. Being happy is the most important ingredient to success - not the other way around!

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+1 for "Being happy is the most important ingredient to success - not the other way around!" –  Kevin Oct 27 '13 at 3:55

You could watch Numberphile video's on Youtube, I really enjoyed them!
It involves some pretty complicated math, but it's explained in such a way that's easy to understand, even if you're not a brilliant mathematician. http://www.youtube.com/user/numberphile

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No one can answer this question for you, because no one knows what motivated you personally in the first place. Maths is like a vast ocean, and not all people like all parts of it. I personally despise abstract algebra, for instance, and care more for insight and intuition rather than rigor. Likewise, not all approach it the same way. Some see it as a competition, others view it simply as a basic foundation for their future carrier, say in economics or engineering, while others yet do it for the sheer intellectual fulfillment it provides. What mesmerized me personally as a kid was Charles W. Trigg's Mathematical Quickies: 270 Stimulating Problems With Solutions, whose utter beauty, elegance and ingenuity I found quite perplexing.

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If you are bored with mathematics, then have a look at a classical introduction to modern number theory by ireland and rosen. Hopefully, your view about mathematics will take a turn.

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Switch track to some other mathematics that is completely different from what you are used to. From what I understand you are not motivated by calculus any longer (the same goes for me by the way, studing for the exam once again ...), however having read other courses made math much more fun.

For example, finite automata, quite a graphic topic, not so much fiddling with remembering formulas, antiderivatives and trigonometry stuff. Also do some applied mathematics, mathematical modeling and problem solving, in this way you will have a concrete problem to solve, instead of some theory which you never know where you would apply. Do some programming and algorithms, with data structures and graphs, also completely different and challenging.

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This happens to me on a very regular basis. Rather than forcing it, I just go with it. I take a break from Mathematics for a while and pursue something else. This happened to me this year before returning to college.

So I started watching Biology documentary's, specifically David Attenborough's classic Life on Earth and various other tid-bits on youtube. By the time I got to college I was so enthused by the natural world that I went straight to the Biology section of the library and picked up a few biology books. I continued to study in Maths and Physics, as well as other subjects; Philosophy, Cognitive Science, Architecture and Music.

And here's the thing, I love Mathematics now much more than I did before I fell into my slump. I could see Mathematics in all these new things I was studying, so while I was reading into this whole other educational sphere, the youthful, curiosity-filled part of my subconscious was thinking "Maths is so cool!". And it is, and it's all around us. But unless you look, you won't find it.

For instance, I am reading The Self Made Tapestry by Philip Ball at the moment. This book looks at the world around us, recognizes patterns and analyses them, e.g bubbles, sand dunes and life forms. It alludes to Maths throughout the book, but very rarely implements it. It's fantastic.

As a final note; If you're good at Maths, you have a gift. Don't forget to use it.

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I like to share one of my personal experiences with you that may be helpful. I am not much intelligent. I had good score in entrance examination and joined M.Sc. in Applied Mathematics course in IIT two years ago. Now my course is completed. It was full of analysis and its applications without algebra.

So three months ago when I returned home I had a fear for abstract algebra and I was also unwilling to learn it. I was not getting any motivation also. But it is very much necessary for any entrance examination for getting PhD.

I started to read a new book and a topic new to me unwillingly. I was just in touch with it three months. Now I have taught myself at least one chapter from this book - Ring Theory. Progress is no doubt slow but I am not unwilling now. I am seeing its beauty. I get my old interest to abstract algebra as it was before going to IIT.

Stay in touch with mathematics. Read something new which is not very difficult, that you can easily understand with your previous knowledge. I hope you may recover you.

All the best.

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What is an IIT? –  Dust Oct 17 '13 at 14:40
    
@Dust Indian Institute of Technology –  Aman Mittal Oct 17 '13 at 16:58

Freakonomics Podcast: The Upside of Quitting

In a way, life is an open book and you are filling in the pages as you go.

It is a matter of perspective, personality and personal goals. There is a difference between writing a few pages on math (akin to studying math in college), writing a few chapters on math (studying in college, and then teaching or working in the field) and then dedicating your entire book to math (giving your entire life over to math to the point of pushing other things aside: family, fun, friends, etc...)

It is your book to write. Read biographies and look at how long and twisting life can become for people. Also, Steve Jobs' Stanford Commencement Speech is a good one.

Life is long, and forcing yourself to do something is sometimes a lost cause.

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I studied mathematics for satisfaction. If you can feel the same, you have found the answer of your question. Never give up, try again and again, read the same topic from many books, but don't forget to play!

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An answer in a different direction: Are you sure that you want to study math? If you truly are interested in math, then you'll find the motivation you need for it. On the other hand, if you don't actually like math but have strengths in other areas, that's great! Math is awesome, but not everyone needs to be a mathematician, and there are plenty of other awesome things out there.

I had a personal experience with a different interest. I'm a devoted Christian, so in college, I spent several years in a Christian student organization. Eventually, I became a Bible study leader. It never completely clicked with me, but I thought it was a good idea and kept on hearing about how important it is to reach out to other people. After a particularly stressful semester, though, I realized that I didn't have the personal strengths to lead a primarily relationship-driven, highly interpersonal group like a Bible study, so I quit being a leader. Instead, I have the gifts to be a good software developer and musician.

I still personally agree with what the Christian organization is doing and have a lot of respect for the people who are still leading studies. I also am still involved in activities to keep up my spiritual life. Nonetheless, I'm now focusing all of my productivity on programming and music, and I'm enjoying myself much more. I still respect religious outreach, even though I'm no longer actively involved in it.

Are you in a similar position? Are you trying to be motivated to study math because you feel like you Should to Be a Good Person, or are you truly interested in it and have the personality for it? In the first case, figure out what you really are wired to do. It's completely OK to respect math without dedicating your working life to it. If you really are interested in math, I'm confident you'll get over this dry period and become a very successful mathematician.

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I never liked Mathematics until 7th grade. I used to get 10 out of 100. Than, I had a chance of changing my school , there I improved myself in Mathematics.In a matter of a year, I stood first in Mathematics. Believe me or not, I always used to score above 95 out of 100. I did my Software Engineering in Bachelor but still I had to take many mathematics courses. I liked Mathematics more than programming. lol. I sometimes get bored in programming when I can not come up with the proper logic... I sometimes think o well, if it was mathematical problem... bingo :)

All I am saying here is, build up your base. Study from base. Understand the concept. If you learn to walk properly, you don't need to learn to climb stairs. Seriously, I am applying this concept in my programming. Now I am doing my Master, plus working as a developer, I am here starting to re-learn programming from the base. Its never too late to start on anything. Good Luck:)

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I suggest you start from reading easy topics. then gradually move to the deep topics. remember to take it easy.. good luck

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