The Joy of Discovery

Fact: I can’t art.

Maybe this is the result of a lack of motivation rather than a lack of natural talent, but the few times that I’ve drawn something on this blog, I’ve made disclaimers, [1] and my high school art class isn’t going particularly well.

One would think that I’d ask for a lot of help in the class to make up for my deficiencies, but I’m reluctant to approach the teacher. Even as other people in my class move on to other projects, I’d rather struggle with my own creation, where everything’s been drawn over at least 3 times and the paper’s become grainy, than ask for help. Someone at my table has already condescendingly told me, “Amy, you’ve spent the entire class period on that one area drawing the same thing, over and over again. See, what I would have done is, do it right the first time, and then moved on.”

Yeah, I would have done that too if I had any idea how to art. [2] A stubborn part of me believes that I can figure everything out on my own given enough time, and I generally don’t ask for help unless it’s “absolutely necessary”, whatever that means.

Relating Math and Art

To be honest, I think I’ve adopted this philosophy of learning through self-discovery from doing math. Yes, that lovely subject that involves numbers. Some of the best epiphanies I’ve had were from solving a math problem after struggling with it for hours and trying multiple methods that just didn’t work. Similar to art, I believe that it’s possible to teach oneself how to solve math problems.

A common feeling when I’m doing math problems is the feeling of failure, stronger than the shallow school pre-test feeling of “oh geez this is hard, there goes my GPA,” but rather a gut-retching sense of “Who am I even to claim that I can do math; I’m exposed. Just give up already.” Sometimes this feeling is true (The problem was actually too hard); sometimes it masks the greatest epiphanies ever (Just 20 different strategies away). I can’t distinguish between the two beforehand, which makes the ambiguity all the more frustrating, but the success all the more sweet.

On the rare occasion where it all “clicks,” where everything makes sense, I get all fuzzy inside, and I have this urge to share what I’ve found out with everyone. That is until I realize that no one cares. Most of my “discoveries” are pretty basic and un-impressive anyways, but that’s irrelevant compared to the sense of euphoria from finding something out. And if the result means being labeled as a nerd, So B. It.

This must seem so obvious to an outsider–When you do stuff on your own, sometimes you succeed, sometimes you don’t, and it’s nice when you do. Duh. However, this realization that success can come even after the utmost feeling of failure is extremely motivating and even mind-blowing in a sense.

Problem Solving

The journey of self-learning isn’t glamorous or efficient, and reaching the end is never guaranteed, but all the motivation is purely intrinsic (at least I like to think so), and there’s an immediate sense of accomplishment at the end–finding the right answer. [See: Problem Based Learning] However, since there’s no easily testable outcome or definite timeframe, this probably won’t be coming to schools anytime soon.

When people ask for help nowadays, I feel like they’re depriving themselves of the experience of discovering something on one’s own. Teachers encourage questions in class, but students often turn to them upon the slightest misunderstanding, essentially making them a search-and-enter function machine. While this does speed up learning, it also reduces the amount of struggling one has to go through in order to learn the material, which is an important skill for when there is no teacher around. [3]

On the other hand, I was listening to a district board member speak, and she said that “by the time a student asks for help, it’s already too late.” In a school system where there’s little stopping for individual setbacks, I guess this makes sense, but perhaps this just exemplifies the problems with the system today, not accepting failure and struggling and giving “try-hard” a bad connotation.

Someone once told me that math class was stupid because “you’re solving problems that other people have done over and over already.” While that’s true, independently creating other people’s discoveries is a important step in making new advancements. The bigger problem is that math in schools has become being told every step of a process, and merely applying it to different numbers, instead of creatively synthesizing mathematical skills to solve complex problems. (I promise I’m not trying to sound like a curriculum writer.)

Our mathclub presidents have made it their mission to “teach non-school math,” and aside from the intelligent boards of math they’re written, they’ve also imparted with us some advice:

R: “You should read more math proofs–for fun. They won’t make any sense at first, and you’ll cry, but eventually you’ll get it, and it’ll get easier.”

P: “No, it doesn’t get easier. You just get used to the crying.”

We all laughed at the time, but looking back, it really showed a willingness to suffer for the sake of math. This was something I noticed at most math competitions, and I really admired those (ugh) mathletes. Pouring in hours of sweat and tears just to be able to spit out the right number to some abstract questions. Ah, the essence of math.  [4]


Even if problem-solving is the core principle behind math, can this be applied to other subjects? High school has taught me that I don’t learn well through osmosis, which explains why the humanities have trouble processing in my brain. [5] So far, I haven’t experienced any intellectual highs that can compare to the sensation of solving math problems, yet I feel like the humanities portray some vital facet of being human that mathematics just doesn’t have.

I like to justify my ignorance by claiming that the “applications” are the only important part of the humanities. From what I’ve learned, the overarching themes of history are that we’re not invincible, that all civilizations will eventually fall to become a chapter in a textbook, but also that we’ve come a long way from the cavemen and attempted political, social, and economic organization many times and failed. History is the record of everything mankind has tried so far and how it’s turned out. However, I can’t recite many specifics, which is troublesome because it’s impossible to understand the big picture without knowing the details as well.

Maybe it’s because I have the AP exam looming over me in May, but I’ve recently felt this need to learn history, even if I don’t see any direct use for it or have any interest in it. I’m sure other people derive the same sense of euphoria that I get from math through other subjects, but that’s something I’m incapable of understanding, just as most people can’t understand what makes math so interesting to me. I can’t imagine a stronger motivating factor than the internal excitement achieved at discovering something new, and if anyone wants to call them a nerd. So. Be. It.

Back to Art

This entire piece stemmed from my lack of skill at drawing, and somehow turned into a tangent about math and then history somehow. What a surprise. I’ve spent the entire post justifying my self-teaching philosophy, but my unwillingness to ask for help could be attributed to many other factors. Maybe my upbringing has taught me not to inconvenience others unless it’s necessary, even when it’s my teacher’s job. Maybe I’m just embarrassed to show my horrible art to anyone and face the direct criticism. Maybe I’m just a slow worker. Maybe I’m just stubborn. Whatever the cause, the result is the same–I’m going to have to deal with learning on my own. [6]

~ ~ ~

[1] I was a conference last year where one of the speakers had us partner with a complete stranger and draw their face in front of them. The point was to see how many people apologized even before they started drawing, and the moral of the exercise was to stop making disclaimers for everything you did in life. Too bad.

[2] Throughout much of elementary school, I thought my art skills would improve as I got older. Turns out, that’s not the cause. Even though my handwriting has improved over the years (slightly), indicating better hand control, I have resorted back to stick figures for my drawings.

[3] This is a distinctly Asian value–that suffering is necessary to success. To bring it up one more notch, perhaps the people that can handle the most suffering will be the most successful because no one else can reach their level of self-discipline. On the other hand, people say that discipline is overrated and that anything important will self-prioritize itself.

[4] One of the things I like about math is that it’s nearly impossible to BS. Either you have the right answer, or you don’t. Math demands excellence in every answer, and it’s very unforgiving, similar to a good teacher. In a world with no effective BS detectors, this is extremely important. And before anyone pounds me with the sketchiness of some math research papers nowadays (cough Mathgen), this is referring more to school and competition-y math.

[5] in this respect, I group art in the same category as math, considering that both subjects require building up on a basic skill set. That doesn’t help with my abilities to draw though.

[6] Yes, I’ve started using footnotes, adopted from Paul Graham’s Writing, Briefly. Aside from allowing me to ramble off on irrelevant topics and make my writing seem more formal than it actually is, I like having a place for snatches of ideas that don’t interrupt my writing. Also, this post is longer than my CCOT essay. (Yay for more WHAP references.) What.


2 thoughts on “The Joy of Discovery

    YAY *trippy background music*

    I feel like you’re telling my life story, but in a more thoughtful way than I would be able to. Especially the parts about not asking questions and crying/spazzing out while mathing. and SO MUCH WHAP. Isn’t it absolutely glorious to know for a fact that we come from the same species as Napoleon and Robespierre and good old Wu Ze Tian? So close yet so far, in terms of space, time, culture, intellect, purpose and everything else.
    We really do need more writers like you to offer rousing speeches to the masses of misunderstood nerds (I use this word as a compliment and self-identify with it so no ‘’ from you young lady). If only to assuage our crippling loneliness. Seriously though, if you write some posts like this for TPP, I will weep in happiness. It’s delightfully non-trivial. <–haha get it get it get it
    I ramble too much when I'm hungry. I bid you farewell and return to my discipline-building suffering.

    Btw, if you're interested in footnotes, read Terry Pratchett's Discworld Series. I promise you won't regret life afterwards.


  2. Pingback: I Guess My Blog is a Toddler Now | Educated Opinions

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