University of Southern California

Gareth James
Title
The Value of What You Don't Find Interesting
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Undergrad Institution
University of Auckland
Hometown
New Zealand

When I was a child I couldn’t read.

My school reports from second through fourth grade are full of C’s with a couple of B’s and share a similar commentary:

Gareth is an average student who shows some potential in math. His reading is getting a little better and he mostly stays out of fights!

Fortunately for my confidence, at the time I couldn’t read these evaluations. To be honest I didn’t see much point in reading. Math was what I loved. For some reason my brain just worked that way. For me, it made sense with its logical rules and clear intuition. The first time I was taught about the quadratic formula, I thought it was the greatest thing ever and lay awake in bed deriving it in my head. Now I’m not claiming that this is a common, or even particularly sane, reaction. In fact when I review this equation in my classes I tell the students that this is a defining point in their lives. If they find the quadratic formula beautiful then they need to see me about doing a PhD in Math, otherwise they are destined to live normal and happy lives.

I’ve always been a slow learner but of course even I eventually realized that reading was important. In particular, at some stage I stopped being able to answer the math problems because I couldn’t read the questions! Unfortunately, by this point my intellectual development was so far ahead of my reading ability that the books I could read were incredibly boring; think “Run Spot Run”. What followed was a painful period with my parents intensively teaching me to read while I tried to show them how to derive the quadratic formula. Neither party was happy.

Eventually my reading improved but there was still nothing outstanding about my academic performance. In New Zealand we had important national School Certificate exams in 10th grade, which needed to be passed to progress. My 7th grade teacher informed my parents that I was a nice, if somewhat slow, student and that with some real effort she thought there was a chance I could pass School Certificate. This was not the sort of feedback my parents were looking for so my mother organized for me to take an IQ test. As she had suspected, the test indicated that I was in the top 2% in the population in both IQ and laziness. Looking back I suspect that my school environment may also have been suboptimal (my strongest recollection is of students throwing chairs on the roof of my classroom to celebrate graduating 7th grade).

By the time 10th grade came along I had managed to move all the way up to average. But this year ended up being a major turning point in my life. I was confident that I would do well in School Certificate Math but had never really found my rhythm in any other subjects. In particular English and I were not friends. I couldn’t see any point in the subject and it certainly didn’t believe I should call it my native tongue. However, for some reason I decided to actually work hard that year. I’m still not sure what caused this major shift in work habits but I suspect it had mostly to do with the fact that I was even worse at sports than academics so this was the only way I could think of to compete. When the final exam results came in at the end of the year I was amazed to discover that I had aced all my subjects. Even my old nemesis English had reluctantly given me the top grade of A1.

A little confidence goes a long way. By 11th grade I was one of the top students in my school and even came 3rd in English. Actually my English teacher claimed I was second because the top 2 students tied for first, but that just confirmed my feeling that she had chosen the right subject to teach. In my final year in high school I topped the school and won a prestigious national scholarship. But it was when I started my undergraduate degrees in Science and Business at the University of Auckland that I realized I had found an environment where I wanted to spend the rest of my life. Here I found an amazing world full of faculty dedicated to building and transmitting knowledge and eager students intent on absorbing as much as they could (some of it was even non-alcoholic).

As time went by I started searching for a career for after graduation. I had a simple approach. Choose profession, get summer job in said area, hate summer job, rethink career goals! After writing off half a dozen professions that way I started to suspect that what I really wanted to do was to spend the rest of my life in a university. The faculty seemed to have a pretty good deal, sitting around thinking deep thoughts all day, teaching the occasional class and getting paid for the whole thing. After a little research I discovered I would need to do a PhD to become a professor but how hard could that be? I moved to Stanford and started working like crazy on my PhD in Statistics. I soon made a couple of very important discoveries. First, Vegemite and Cricket are things you have to be bought up with to properly appreciate (Americans don’t know what they are missing out on!) and second, the only thing better than getting paid to sit around thinking about fun ideas is to get paid to sit around in the California sun thinking about fun ideas.

This latter observation led me to search for a university position in California and I was lucky enough to land a job at USC. I love living in Los Angeles but I love my job even more. USC is a great university with fantastic students to teach and the freedom to work on the problems that interest me most. I have now spent 13 years at Marshall and have had the opportunity to interact with many amazing colleagues and teach a host of undergraduate, MBA and PhD level classes.

And after all of those years of education what did I discover was the most useful subject? English! Even for a mathematical area like statistics, it turns out to be essential to write up research papers and class notes in a clear, concise and organized fashion. Equally, when teaching classes or giving seminars the audience will be lost inside 5 minutes unless the speaker can find a way to present the concepts in a lively and coherent way. So despite English being the subject I hated most in school I now put enormous effort into, and take great pride in, my writing and communication skills. Without the ability to communicate them, the best ideas will simply die.

So, beware the subject that you believe is irrelevant and that you have no ability in, whether it be English, Science, Art, Economics or even (god forbid) Math. It may well turn out to be the most important course you take.