12 Life Lessons From Mathematician and Philosopher Gian-Carlo Rota
Blog: FS - Smart decisions
The mathematician and philosopher Gian-Carlo Rota spent much of his career at MIT, where students adored him for his engaging, passionate lectures. In 1996, Rota gave a talk entitled “Ten Lessons I Wish I Had Been Taught,” which contains valuable advice for making people pay attention to your ideas.
Many mathematicians regard Rota as single-handedly responsible for turning combinatorics into a significant field of study. He specialized in functional analysis, probability theory, phenomenology, and combinatorics. His 1996 talk, “Ten Lessons I Wish I Had Been Taught,” was later printed in his book, Indiscrete Thoughts.
Rota began by explaining that the advice we give others is always the advice we need to follow most. Seeing as it was too late for him to follow certain lessons, he decided he would share them with the audience. Here, we summarize twelve insights from Rota’s talk—which are fascinating and practical, even if you’re not a mathematician.
Every lecture should make only one point
“Every lecture should state one main point and repeat it over and over, like a theme with variations. An audience is like a herd of cows, moving slowly in the direction they are being driven towards.”
When we wish to communicate with people—in an article, an email to a coworker, a presentation, a text to a partner, and so on—it’s often best to stick to making one point at a time. This matters all the more so if we’re trying to get our ideas across to a large audience.
If we make one point well enough, we can be optimistic about people understanding and remembering it. But if we try to fit too much in, “the cows will scatter all over the field. The audience will lose interest and everyone will go back to the thoughts they interrupted in order to come to our lecture.”
Never run over time
“After fifty minutes (one microcentury as von Neumann used to say), everybody’s attention will turn elsewhere even if we are trying to prove the Riemann hypothesis. One minute over time can destroy the best of lectures.”
Rota considered running over the allotted time slot to be the worst thing a lecturer could do. Our attention spans are finite. After a certain point, we stop taking in new information.
In your work, it’s important to respect the time and attention of others. Put in the extra work required for brevity and clarity. Don’t expect them to find what you have to say as interesting as you do. Condensing and compressing your ideas both ensures you truly understand them and makes them easier for others to remember.
Relate to your audience
“As you enter the lecture hall, try to spot someone in the audience whose work you have some familiarity with. Quickly rearrange your presentation so as to manage to mention some of that person’s work.”
Reciprocity is remarkably persuasive. Sometimes, how people respond to your work has as much to do with how you respond to theirs as it does with the work itself. If you want people to pay attention to your work, always give before you take and pay attention to theirs first. Show that you see them and appreciate them. Rota explains that “everyone in the audience has come to listen to your lecture with the secret hope of hearing their work mentioned.”
The less acknowledgment someone’s work has received, the more of an impact your attention is likely to have. A small act of encouragement can be enough to deter someone from quitting. With characteristic humor, Rota recounts:
“I have always felt miffed after reading a paper in which I felt I was not being given proper credit, and it is safe to conjecture that the same happens to everyone else. One day I tried an experiment. After writing a rather long paper, I began to draft a thorough bibliography. On the spur of the moment I decided to cite a few papers which had nothing whatsoever to do with the content of my paper to see what might happen.
Somewhat to my surprise, I received letters from two of the authors whose papers I believed were irrelevant to my article. Both letters were written in an emotionally charged tone. Each of the authors warmly congratulated me for being the first to acknowledge their contribution to the field.”
Give people something to take home
“I often meet, in airports, in the street, and occasionally in embarrassing situations, MIT alumni who have taken one or more courses from me. Most of the time they admit that they have forgotten the subject of the course and all the mathematics I thought I had taught them. However, they will gladly recall some joke, some anecdote, some quirk, some side remark, or some mistake I made.”
When we have a conversation, read a book, or listen to a talk, the sad fact is that we are unlikely to remember much of it even a few hours later, let alone years after the event. Even if we enjoyed and valued it, only a small part will stick in our memory.
So when you’re communicating with people, try to be conscious about giving them something to take home. Choose a memorable line or idea, create a visual image, or use humor in your work.
For example, in The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt repeats many times that the mind is like a tiny rider on a gigantic elephant. The rider represents controlled mental processes, while the elephant represents automatic ones. It’s a distinctive image, one readers are quite likely to take home with them.
Make sure the blackboard is spotless
“By starting with a spotless blackboard, you will subtly convey the impression that the lecture they are about to hear is equally spotless.”
Presentation matters. The way our work looks influences how people perceive it. Taking the time to clean our equivalent of a blackboard signals that we care about what we’re doing and consider it important.
In “How To Spot Bad Science,” we noted that one possible sign of bad science is that the research is presented in a thoughtless, messy way. Most researchers who take their work seriously will put in the extra effort to ensure it’s well presented.
Make it easy for people to take notes
“What we write on the blackboard should correspond to what we want an attentive listener to take down in his notebook. It is preferable to write slowly and in a large handwriting, with no abbreviations. Those members of the audience who are taking notes are doing us a favor, and it is up to us to help them with their copying.”
If a lecturer is using slides with writing on them instead of a blackboard, Rota adds that they should give people time to take notes. This might mean repeating themselves in a few different ways so each slide takes longer to explain (which ties in with the idea that every lecture should make only one point). Moving too fast with the expectation that people will look at the slides again later is “wishful thinking.”
When we present our work to people, we should make it simple for them to understand our ideas on the spot. We shouldn’t expect them to revisit it later. They might forget. And even if they don’t, we won’t be there to answer questions, take feedback, and clear up any misunderstandings.
Share the same work multiple times
Rota learned this lesson when he bought Collected Papers, a volume compiling the publications of mathematician Frederic Riesz. He noted that “the editors had gone out of their way to publish every little scrap Riesz had ever published.” Putting them all in one place revealed that he had published the same ideas multiple times:
Riesz would publish the first rough version of an idea in some obscure Hungarian journal. A few years later, he would send a series of notes to the French Academy’s Comptes Rendus in which the same material was further elaborated. A few more years would pass, and he would publish the definitive paper, either in French or in English.
Riesz would also develop his ideas while lecturing. Explaining the same subject again and again for years allowed him to keep improving it until he was ready to publish. Rota notes, “No wonder the final version was perfect.”
In our work, we might feel as if we need to have fresh ideas all of the time and that anything we share with others needs to be a finished product. But sometimes we can do our best work through an iterative process.
For example, a writer might start by sharing an idea as a tweet. This gets a good response, and the replies help them expand it into a blog post. From there they keep reworking the post over several years, making it longer and more definite each time. They give a talk on the topic. Eventually, it becomes a book.
Award-winning comedian Chris Rock prepares for global tours by performing dozens of times in small venues for a handful of people. Each performance is an experiment to see which jokes land, which ones don’t, and which need tweaking. By the time he’s performed a routine forty or fifty times, making it better and better, he’s ready to share it with huge audiences.
Another reason to share the same work multiple times is that different people will see it each time and understand it in different ways:
“The mathematical community is split into small groups, each one with its own customs, notation, and terminology. It may soon be indispensable to present the same result in several versions, each one accessible to a specific group; the price one might have to pay otherwise is to have our work rediscovered by someone who uses a different language and notation, and who will rightly claim it as his own.”
Sharing your work multiple times thus has two benefits. The first is that the feedback allows you to improve and refine your work. The second is that you increase the chance of your work being definitively associated with you. If the core ideas are strong enough, they’ll shine through even in the initial incomplete versions.
You are more likely to be remembered for your expository work
“Allow me to digress with a personal reminiscence. I sometimes publish in a branch of philosophy called phenomenology. . . . It so happens that the fundamental treatises of phenomenology are written in thick, heavy philosophical German. Tradition demands that no examples ever be given of what one is talking about. One day I decided, not without serious misgivings, to publish a paper that was essentially an updating of some paragraphs from a book by Edmund Husserl, with a few examples added. While I was waiting for the worst at the next meeting of the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy, a prominent phenomenologist rushed towards me with a smile on his face. He was full of praise for my paper, and he strongly encouraged me to further develop the novel and original ideas presented in it.”
Rota realized that many of the mathematicians he admired the most were known more for their work explaining and building upon existing knowledge, as opposed to their entirely original work. Their extensive knowledge of their domain meant they could expand a little beyond their core specialization and synthesize charted territory.
For example, David Hilbert was best known for a textbook on integral equations which was “in large part expository, leaning on the work of Hellinger and several other mathematicians whose names are now forgotten.” William Feller was known for an influential treatise on probability, with few recalling his original work in convex geometry.
One of our core goals at Farnam Street is to share the best of what other people have already figured out. We all want to make original and creative contributions to the world. But the best ideas that are already out there are quite often much more useful than what we can contribute from scratch.
We should never be afraid to stand on the shoulders of giants.
Every mathematician has only a few tricks
“. . . mathematicians, even the very best, also rely on a few tricks which they use over and over.”
Upon reading the complete works of certain influential mathematicians, such as David Hilbert, Rota realized that they always used the same tricks again and again.
We don’t need to be amazing at everything to do high-quality work. The smartest and most successful people are often only good at a few things—or even one thing. Their secret is that they maximize those strengths and don’t get distracted. They define their circle of competence and don’t attempt things they’re not good at if there’s any room to double down further on what’s already going well.
It might seem as if this lesson contradicts the previous one (you are more likely to be remembered for your expository work), but there’s a key difference. If you’ve hit diminishing returns with improvements to what’s already inside your circle of competence, it makes sense to experiment with things you already have an aptitude for (or a strong suspicion you might) but you just haven’t made them your focus.
Don’t worry about small mistakes
“Once more let me begin with Hilbert. When the Germans were planning to publish Hilbert’s collected papers and to present him with a set on the occasion of one of his later birthdays, they realized that they could not publish the papers in their original versions because they were full of errors, some of them quite serious. Thereupon they hired a young unemployed mathematician, Olga Taussky-Todd, to go over Hilbert’s papers and correct all mistakes. Olga labored for three years; it turned out that all mistakes could be corrected without any major changes in the statement of the theorems. . . . At last, on Hilbert’s birthday, a freshly printed set of Hilbert’s collected papers was presented to the Geheimrat. Hilbert leafed through them carefully and did not notice anything.”
Rota goes on to say: “There are two kinds of mistakes. There are fatal mistakes that destroy a theory; but there are also contingent ones, which are useful in testing the stability of a theory.”
Mistakes are either contingent or fatal. Contingent mistakes don’t completely ruin what you’re working on; fatal ones do. Building in a margin of safety (such as having a bit more time or funding that you expect to need) turns many fatal mistakes into contingent ones.
Contingent mistakes can even be useful. When details change, but the underlying theory is still sound, you know which details not to sweat.
Use Feynman’s method for solving problems
“Richard Feynman was fond of giving the following advice on how to be a genius. You have to keep a dozen of your favorite problems constantly present in your mind, although by and large they will lay in a dormant state. Every time you hear or read a new trick or a new result, test it against each of your twelve problems to see whether it helps. Every once in a while there will be a hit, and people will say: ‘How did he do it? He must be a genius!’”
Write informative introductions
“Nowadays, reading a mathematics paper from top to bottom is a rare event. If we wish our paper to be read, we had better provide our prospective readers with strong motivation to do so. A lengthy introduction, summarizing the history of the subject, giving everybody his due, and perhaps enticingly outlining the content of the paper in a discursive manner, will go some of the way towards getting us a couple of readers.”
As with the lesson of don’t run over time, respect that people have limited time and attention. Introductions are all about explaining what a piece of work is going to be about, what its purpose is, and why someone should be interested in it.
A job posting is an introduction to a company. The description on a calendar invite to a meeting is an introduction to that meeting. An about page is an introduction to an author. The subject line on a cold email is an introduction to that message. A course curriculum is an introduction to a class.
Putting extra effort into our introductions will help other people make an accurate assessment of whether they want to engage with the full thing. It will prime their minds for what to expect and answer some of their questions.
If you’re interested in learning more, check out Rota’s “10 Lessons of an MIT Education.”
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