Science & Tech

Terence Tao’s Journey

Terence Tao

Lesson time 06:43 min

Looking back, Terence can’t remember life before math. He was always drawn to it and naturally loved it. In this lesson, he shares the inner workings of a mathematical life and the difference between mathematical competitions and research.

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Topics include: Terence Tao’s Journey Find a Mentor Mathematicians Are Humans, Too Navigating Math’s Landscapes


TERENCE TAO: I can't imagine life without math for me. I've always grown up liking maths puzzles, and I've been a mathematician my whole adult life. I really can't imagine life any other way really, but I remember growing up, thinking maybe I should be a storekeeper. Because I think I can handle you balancing the accounts and inventory. It seemed like something I could do, because I had no idea what a mathematician did. I thought that there was some authority that handed them big, difficult problems to solve, and you just handed them back when you solve them. And you almost never see a mathematician portrayed in popular media, except maybe some slightly crazy genius or something. And for most of my teenage life, I was mostly with kids much older than me. I skipped a lot of grades. In fact, I skipped five grades. When I was in primary school, I would take some high school classes. In high school, I would take some college level classes. My parents certainly tried very hard to balance my math and science type activities with everything else that a kid does. I participated in a lot of mathematics competitions. They were almost like sports. There's a time limit. There's a certain number of questions you need to solve in a certain time, and it's quite different from the experience of mathematical research. The analogy I like to give is that mathematical competitions are like contributer sprints, and mathematical researchers are like marathons. They take sustained effort, and you need a lot of stamina. I was lucky to have many mentors. My first was my mother. She was a high school math teacher. She went through the basics of math with me from a very early age. There was a retired math professor who I would spend weekends with. I remember he had a little journal, a little math journal, where he would write solutions to math problems and phrase them in terms of little stories. And I remember writing one of these stories myself. I was very proud contributing to that journal. As an undergraduate, I had an excellent advisor who recommended me go into study abroad to do my PhD, and when I went to my PhD, my PhD advisor was very supportive. You know, he gave me a lot of tough love. He definitely motivated me to work harder and to actually impress him. As time goes by, I find more and more rewarding working with the younger generation, mentoring them. It feels good to pass on my knowledge and tips to other people and see them take things further than I ever could. It's very satisfying. I think mathematicians are humans, like anyone else. You know, we have frequently imposter syndrome. We feel like we don't deserve to be doing math, and everyone else around us seems to be doing better than us. Because we're always faced with problems that we can't solve, and sometimes, we wonder whether we have what it takes. We are intimidated by people more senior than ourselves. I remember, as a graduate student, I...

About the Instructor

A MacArthur Fellow and Fields Medal winner, Terence Tao, PhD, was studying university-level math by age 9. Now the “Mozart of Math” is breaking down his approach to everyday problem-solving—without complex equations or formulas. Learn how to deconstruct challenges, use storytelling as a tool, and discover solutions, whether you’re trying to level up in a computer game or just catch your plane on time.

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Terence Tao

World-renowned mathematician Dr. Terence Tao teaches you his approach to everyday problem-solving—without complex equations or formulas.

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