I could probably have framed this post as an “Ask Uncle Colin”, but it feels somehow different, so I’m going to do it as a Monday post. My blog, my rules.

On Twitter, @sharanjit asked:

I had a point in my education where maths went from being easy to suddenly being hard (University). Did you have that? When? Did you keep going? How?

My response ((I have lightly edited the twitter thread)):

I got it in my second year Algebra and Analysis exam, where I had an “… I think I can spell some of those words?” moment with the first few questions. I got through that exam by finding a few things I could do and going all out on exam technique.

In terms of how I got past the confidence knock, I had an academically poor year in France the following year, and came back with an attitude of “I’m much better than I’ve shown recently” and gave myself a colossal kick in the pants.

I figured out the things that interested me and specialised in those for my final year — I had been coasting a bit up until then and I knuckled down and knocked everything out of the park first semester back.

My big take-away was that maths isn’t a line, it’s a tree. Maybe if you’re Gauss, you can climb every branch. Picking the branches that looked interesting was the key for me. ((At this point, I’m wondering if I’ve broken the record for the number of mixed metaphors in a twitter thread. ))

A follow-up question from @StephenPWooton:

What were your exam techniques which saw you through?

I wrote a book about that!

It was more than 20 years ago, so I’m not sure of the exact details, but I remember reading through the questions and saying “these ones look more familiar topics than the others, I’ll start with those”

Once I had a couple of questions under my belt, it jogged my memory on a few definitions/proofs I could write down after a fashion and pick up odd marks here and there.

Probably more than anything, I realised that panicking wasn’t going to help me and I needed to calm down, breathe properly and find something I could do.

Years later, I found a quote that said “set aside your fears and make a small, imperfect start”, which pretty much encapsulates what I did.