I Am A Mathematician

Have you ever asked an eight year-old, “So what do you do?” in the same way that you may ask an adult that question? When asking an adult “So what do you do?” we, more often than not, are implying “… for a living”. Adults will usually reply with “I am a <insert profession>.”

But what’s the response that an eight year-old would give? (Incidentally, I use “eight year-old” as a catch-all for pre-teen.) Most kids I’ve asked that question to stare back blankly and then after a few moments of processing the question they reply either with a shrug and “I don’t know.” or with “I play baseball!” or another such activity.

As adults, we reply with our job, job title, or profession in general. What do you do? I’m a doctor. I’m an engineer. I work at <company> in the paper-pushing department. I’m a mathematician. I’m a programmer. You get the idea.

This is a curious phrase — “I’m a …”. Why do adults say that? Maybe I’m being pedantic here. But why do we never say, “I work as a <insert profession>” rather than “I am a <insert profession>”? Is it to save a syllable? And when does this start?

I cannot recall saying “I am a fourth grader.” when asked “So what do you do?” by an adult. Do you?

I’m a mathematician. Before that I was a PhD student. Before that I was a graduate student finishing my Master’s degree. Before that I was a financial analyst. Before that. Before that. Before that. Before that. Before that … until we get to freshman in high school. That’s the first time I can remember starting to use the phrase “I’m a …” to explain what I do. I’m a freshman. I’m a senior. I’m a student. I do not recall ever using that reply when i was in the eighth grade or earlier. Prior to high school there was no “I’m a …”. If anything, it was “I want to be a …”.

I think this is a subtle conditioning that we go through from an early age. It begins with the “So what do you want to be when you grow up?” question. We’re slowly but steadily conditioned into wanting to become something. I’m a mathematician.

The reality for me is that I work as a mathematician. I have formal training in mathematics. I’m reasonably good at mathematics. And no doubt, that training has shaped, among other things, my thought process, my views on the world, my approach to solving problems, and my style of debate.

But something else happens when we define ourselves with “I’m a <profession>”. We begin to pigeonhole ourselves mentally and behaviorally, especially the more advanced / specialized the profession.

Here’s what I mean. When I go out for dinner with non-math friends, guess who’s calculating tip? When I play a game of chance with non-math friends (or actually, sometimes with math friends as well, since my focus is in Probability Theory), guess who’s tasked with computing expected values and the like? And it is actually a virtual impossibility for me to get out of these things. I can’t say that I don’t want to calculate the tip or itemize the bill. Worse, I can’t ever say that the arithmetic is too tedious. I couldn’t say to anyone’s satisfaction, “Yeah, it’s probably a good bet.” — that is, I can always speculate, but when asked, “Is this a good bet?” the answer needs to be a “yes” or a “no” and not, “Yeah, probably if I squint a bit.”

It’s true that I have the technical ability to do these calculations — they are part of the mechanics of mathematics. But what if I didn’t want to be like a mathematician for a few moments? What if I wanted to just make a fuzzy decision not based on calculation, not based on mathematical reasoning or intuition, but rather just based on gut? As a free individual, I certainly can. But I get strange looks and strange comments. “But you’re a mathematician.” It’s as if I’ve betrayed the profession and I’ve betrayed myself if I respond in a non-mathematical way to something that could have a mathematical response.

It’s a very interesting phenomenon. And this isn’t just the case for me or for mathematicians. Pick any profession; pick your profession. Ask yourself if you define yourself as your profession or in another way. Do you mentally carry your profession with you to family get togethers, a stroll through the park, a day at the beach, at ball game, etc.? Can you ever turn off your professional training? My guess is that, by and large, most of us don’t even realize how mentally constrained we are by our association with our profession when interacting with others.

When I’m by myself I can be as unmathematical as I want. But around others, there’s this sense of professional dignity that I have to maintain and a professional dignity that others have to maintain as well. With mathematics, I can’t “unknow” the logic, I can’t “unsee” the world from a mathematician’s vantage. The most I can do is also know logic from another line of training or also see the world from another vantage point of another profession.

But back to the beginning. When in our lives does this “I’m a …” business start? I’m fairly convinced that it begins in high school since that’s when the focus on “the rest of your life” comes in to play. That’s when the label of what grade we’re in, what we’ll make of ourselves, where we’ll go, is emphasized. It’s also a time of several rites of passage: puberty, driving, first job, moving to college, more pronounced social drama, etc. In all this, a teenager tries to find some psychologically stable footing. And this, I think leads to the “I’m a …” response. It’s safe, it’s definite, it gives a feeling of consistency, and it’s a way of knowing that one isn’t just floating around.

Is this good? Is this bad? Does it matter? Who knows. Maybe it’s just me. As far as I’m concerned, I work as a mathematician, but I am many things.