Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
February 4, 2023

What you should look for in your major

By SOPHIA LIPKIN | August 31, 2021

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Lipkin argues that, when picking your major, it does not matter how good you are at a subject.

I stumbled upon my Mathematics major in a manner only describable as an accident. I had always taken hard math classes in high school, and I became accustomed to math taking up most of my time, so it just seemed natural that I would continue to take those classes in college. And it sort of never stopped. Even though I am, by most accounts, terrible at mathematics.

People will look at me a little wryly when I explain this and ask why I would major in something I’m bad at. It’s taken me a long time to even come close to an answer.

You shouldn’t do things for the sake of being good at them. It’s a lesson that I think is extremely difficult to internalize at a school like Hopkins, where everyone is obsessed with being the best. Where everyone has gotten the best grades in high school and expects to get the best grades in college and advance to the best postgraduate degree and get the best job. In an environment like that, math has been a welcome reprieve, a way to acknowledge that sometimes I don’t get to control everything. You do things for what they teach you and because you love to do them.

I like the struggle — I like the late nights spent in Brody obsessing over a line in a proof. I like the way math teaches you to think; it makes me fit my ADHD thoughts into a linear fashion. More often than not, the answer is one I would have never thought to do or one I would never have come up with on my own. I like that you’re forced to rely on others, that what seems like a solitary activity is actually collaborative.

I like it because it's taught me that natural talent means nothing in comparison to hard work. I will always be proudest of an 85 I once got on an analysis exam — despite better grades I’ve gotten elsewhere. There’s no such thing as being bad at math; there are only people who give up too soon. I don’t give up anymore if I don’t understand a concept immediately.

Math has taught me a lot. I probably couldn’t tell you all that much about topology or differential equations despite my moderate success in both of those classes, but the lessons I’ve learned will hopefully stick with me a lot longer than any of that accumulated knowledge has.

My advisor once asked me if I wanted to pursue a career in math. When I laughed and said no because I’m bad at it, he shook his head. But you love it, right? So why should anything else matter?

I would not have gotten this far if I had not loved the subject itself. There’s a logic to the universe that we can’t always understand: theorems that have been proven to be unprovable. There are different sizes of infinities, but we will never know if there are more than two. Sometimes I can’t tell if mathematicians are discovering the secrets to the universe or inventing their own.

Being bad at math is a way of projecting my insecurities onto an easy public face. It’s something that is simultaneously true and untrue, something I can joke about in a self-deprecating way. But loving math has forced me to come to terms with that contradiction, and it has forced me to realize how many people there are who want me to succeed: professors who refuse to give up on me, friends who help me through the homework.

More importantly, I want to succeed for myself. Because my desire to understand outweighs the growing pains of learning. 

Don’t do something because you’re bad at it — do it because you love it. 


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