My Math Hero From College Calculus

crispydoc Uncategorized 9 Comments

Like a lot of overachievers who end up pursuing medicine, I entered college with a great deal of credit from a combination of Advanced Placement tests and courses taken for credit in night school at my local community college.

Thanks to classes in physics, French and philosophy taken as a high school senior, I was exempted from a slew of general education requirements as a college freshman.

Consequently, when other freshman were in mandatory writing skills and language workshops, I was immersing myself in Russian Realist literature and taking graduate level seminars from a passionate visiting French professor on the works of Albert Camus.

A Public Service Announcement

For readers with high school aged kids, I'd like to offer a hearty endorsement: Please encourage them to enroll in community college coursework while high school students.

The ability to get out of school an hour earlier in exchange for a 2-3 night per week night class was a great introduction to independence and adulting.

The innocent friendships with attractive 20-something coeds provided added incentives. At a time when high school felt provincial, community college offered access to new ideas and interesting people that I couldn't get enough of.

Want your teen to appreciate the opportunities that an education provides? Put them in night classes sprinkled with single mothers seeking to escape dead end jobs, motivated blue collar workers striving to get ahead, and immigrants pursuing the American dream. The lesson will sink in immediately.

But Back To The Lecture At Hand

For all the credit that college accepted, it would not spare me from retaking Calculus. Accustomed to being a strong student in advanced classes, I was not afraid. I should have been.

Since I had passed the AP Calculus Exam, I was required to enroll in a more rigorous Calculus course. This course promptly served me a huge slice of humble pie.

I found myself studying harder than ever with less to show for it. I was now a small fish in a big pond, and I was surrounded by brilliant people with work ethics every bit as strong as mine had been.

It was humbling and worrisome. Fortunately, there was Matt down the hall. When I could not grasp a concept, I walked a couple of doors over to find a friend who was never too busy.

I felt terrible taking his time when he seemed able to assimilate the material so quickly. He assuaged my guilt at being the slower learner by insisting, "If I can explain it to you then it helps me learn the material better." He meant it, too.

Matt was the reason I succeeded in Calculus, a sort of personal T.A. every time I hit a roadblock during a problem set. At my 20 year class reunion, I had the opportunity to introduce him to my wife as the guy who got me through a rough patch, and to honor him in this small way.

I let him know that his kindness those many years ago was still remembered and deeply appreciated. In his usual manner, he insisted that learning how to explain difficult technical concepts had laid the foundation for becoming a patent attorney in Silicon Valley. Although I felt like a black cloud, he saw only my silver lining.

You Can Always Depend On The Kindness Of Strangers

The physician finance blogosphere is composed largely of Matts. Generous people for whom no question is too dumb, no problem is too specific or bizarre, and who have no qualms about explaining how to do a backdoor Roth for the umpteenth time.

I am so grateful to this collection of people who continue to see their fellow physicians' financial questions and debt dilemmas as interesting puzzles they'd be interested in helping to solve.

You Can Reflect That Kindness Back Into The World And Amplify It

You won't know when the opportunity will present itself. It certainly won't be the person you think could most benefit from the insight.

At some point over the next week, someone will ask you for help in a way that seems cumbersome, imposes on your already scarce time, and that no social contract requires you uphold. It might happen at work, in your neighborhood, or while you are on a Costco run trying to be super efficient.

It's completely okay to groan internally for a moment. Then remember your personal Matt. The person you barely knew who brought you food when you were sick. The people who organized your baby shower at work, because they are just nicer than other human beings. The time you went to pay the bill at dinner only to be told a complete stranger had already paid it.

At which point you might take a deep breath, smile, and say, "If I can explain it to you then it helps me learn the material better."

And you'll mean it, too.

Comments 9

  1. Wow great story! I was Matt the guy good at science especially engineering physics and chemistry and calc up to second order DiffeQ. At some point I ventured into “the labs” a playground for bright undergrads. I migrated first to Neuro science and learned brain anatomy cold and began working on a project about stroke evolution from a completely novel approach. Stayed with that till the Prof moved on after he didn’t get funded. I went to inorganic chemistry working on gas phase reactions and tutored chemistry general and organic to undergrads as well as physics. I enjoyed the teaching and the service. I got a student job working in the chemistry lab that was not part of the research mission but the teaching mission. I was a good enough bench chemist to make and calibrate those solutions students used as samples to titrate against for example. I also completed study in a new field called bio-engineering which was largely an EE degree. At some point I ran out of money so I walked into the office that graduates you and graduated, and then walked up 1 flight to the grad school and enrolled. That gave me access to TA money in the physics department. Eventually I ran out of steam at being a “student” finished the MA and went to find a job as an EE in communications. Eventually I got bored with EE and my love interest required more money than I was making so I studied for a year and took the MCAT and scored in the top 1% nationally. All of that tutoring did pay off. It allowed me to learn the subjects cold even to several years after taking the course. I got a kick out of my Med school interviews. We’d be chatting and then they would get to my MCAT scores and I could see the shot gun go off. I was an older student age 29 and not in a research track but out of industry, an out-layer but still got in. Once in I
    got a job teaching MCAT on the weekends to the next crew of wannabe’s. Eventually I broke up with the GF (proof God loves me) and dove into medicine hook line and sinker. All of that tutoring and side work paid me back same as Matt

    1. Post


      It’s not a remote stretch to imagine you as a Matt – sharing an intuitive grasp with those who could use the supplemental education time.

      The love interest motivating you to enter medicine for income (and ultimately departing your life) would make me a believer as well.

      You story also confirms my bias that self-identified misfits, inoculated against the often frivolous pursuits of their peer group (the Joneses), are able to leverage their outlier status to great financial advantage over long time horizons.

      May we all enjoy lives of continuous learning,


  2. I am not sure I am at the level of Matt but I totally get the concept. When I was teaching residents and medical students I was known for making harder concepts easier to comprehend because I had to do the same thing for myself when I was learning them for the first time.

    It is nice to pay it forward when someone has done the same for you

    1. Post

      Xrayvsn, you have a talent for using plain language to explain abstract concepts in finance, for which your readers (myself included) feel most grateful! Thanks for what you do,


  3. CD! Now I’m having flashbacks to college calculus! I really wish I had been able to place out of AB calculus, because I also got slapped with the humble stick. Not only was the material hard, but I couldn’t understand the TAs that taught the sections! For the first semester, I had a Korean TA and then a French TA for the second semester. They were both pleasant and well meaning, but had the thickest accents of their respective mother countries imaginable.

    I definitely could have used a Matt.

    — TDD

    1. Post


      Having struggled in that sink-or-swim zone, I relate to how heaping one aggravation on top of another can feel defeating.

      When you are lucky enough to attend a world class university, as I imagine you did, you attract the world’s finest minds (including non-native speakers of English). I found that the key to getting past challenging accents in talented TAs was office hours – that one on one time made a difference.

      That humble stick leaves a mark!

  4. I was lucky enough to have the most patient and helpful pedagogical genius of a PhD supervisor. I saw those around me sink on their own but I was kept afloat by his continuous good humor and literally hours of help. Eventually I became more independent, but that could not have happened without his help.
    Nice post

    1. Post

      Thanks, AoF. I very much think that you fulfill that role for many others who are spreadsheet-phobic, so it’s comforting to hear that you are paying it forward.

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