You don’t have to be a genius to become a mathematician. If you find this statement at all surprising, you’re an example of what’s wrong with the way our society identifies, encourages and rewards talent.
As a mathematician who studied at Berkeley, Harvard and Princeton, I’ve known geniuses. I got to hang out with Andrew Wiles, who is credited with solving Fermat’s Last Theorem, and I met Grigori Perelman, who solved the Poincare Conjecture. They’re great guys, but they didn’t do it on their own. For each certified genius, there are at least a hundred other great people who helped achieve such outstanding results.
The winners, be they CEOs, senators or Nobel laureates, owe much of their success to a functional system. I’m not the first to note that Steve Jobs likely would have been a subsistence farmer if he had been born in another time (if he survived childhood at all). Yet his achievements tend to be portrayed as entirely his own.
In short, we over-reward those at the top and dismiss the rest. It’s an unhelpful and unnecessary bias that facilitates hero worship, undermines the goal of nurturing creativity and discourages valuable contributions to communities, worthy causes and scientific projects.
To even imagine becoming a mathematician, I had to ignore the question of whether I was a genius, or whether I would need to be a genius. Had I been poked and prodded and measured to see how exceptional I was, I probably would have lost the nerve.
We do ourselves a disservice when we focus only on the exceptional, in math or in any other field. We should instead strive toward literacy for all, added challenges for those who want them, and well-funded research for the crazy few who are willing to devote themselves to it. We’re going to need a whole lot of smart and confident thinkers to take on the problems we’re creating.