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Every day, we make hundreds of decisions that are informed by our quantitative judgment. Most of the time, we don’t even realize it. When you’re packing a lot of things into a small bag, you have to think geometrically. When you’re planning a schedule or dividing your time, you’re thinking quantitatively. When you’re trying to decide between two different options, you’re thinking analytically.” – John Urschel


Skimming my newsfeed the other morning, I came across an article written by John Urschel, an offensive lineman for the Baltimore Ravens. Typically I would stop reading right there. I am an avid Pittsburgh Steelers fan, and the Ravens are our archrivals. But I try to possess a growth mindset, so I powered on to learn more about Urschel and math. Yes, math.

Urschel enrolled in a Ph.D. program at MIT during his last off-season and is studying spectral graph theory, numerical linear algebra and machine learning. Though I am not sure what most of that means, I am always interested in math so I kept reading.Thankfully, the article he wrote for Education Week is more about how he came to enjoy math. He cited examples of how he and his mother solved puzzles and how she challenged him to solve more and more difficult ones. He didn’t like math in school. When he got older, he realized how important math is in his life. “Math is everywhere we look. It’s the science behind a perfect football spiral, the velocity of a game-winning three-point shot in basketball. It’s the ratio of the ingredients you measure when you’re cooking. It’s even in how you budget to save for your first car. When I was a kid, I didn’t realize that math was training my brain to solve these types of problems.”

When I was a kid and students asked why they had to learn certain things that seemed irrelevant to them at the time, the response was always something like, “You’ll need this one day.” And that is what Urschel is saying. Each year, what we learn becomes a bit more complex – the bar is raised. What we are doing is training our brains; we’re learning to think and to build our capacity to solve problems that arise throughout our lives. Urschel did not know he would be learning football plays for a job that so many people envy. He didn’t know that solving those puzzles with his mother would prepare him for his adult life. And I’m sure he didn’t think he’d be enrolling in MIT to study ideas that are unfamiliar to most of us. He knew he was having fun and figured out later that he was learning.