When someone linked me to Ravi Vakil’s advice for potential graduate students, I was struck by the following passage:
…[M]athematics is so rich and infinite that it is impossible to learn it systematically, and if you wait to master one topic before moving on to the next, you’ll never get anywhere. Instead, you’ll have tendrils of knowledge extending far from your comfort zone [emphasis mine]. Then you can later backfill from these tendrils, and extend your comfort zone; this is much easier to do than learning “forwards”. (Caution: this backfilling is necessary. There can be a temptation to learn lots of fancy words and to use them in fancy sentences without being able to say precisely what you mean. You should feel free to do that, but you should always feel a pang of guilt when you do.)
It’s great to hear this coming from an expert because this is exactly what I’ve been doing for the past year without realizing it. Without formally learning anything, I’ve begun extending tendrils into algebraic topology, category theory, and all sorts of subjects about which I still can’t say anything particularly intelligent. However, from my experience so far I have a tentative list of the benefits of this strategy:
- It becomes easier to recognize related concepts or constructions across different subjects, hence to tie them together.
- If you have a concept you don’t fully understand sitting in the back of your head, it may come to pass that once you learn the necessary tools to understand it you may re-derive the concept partially based on your memory. As Richard Feynman said, “what I cannot create, I do not understand.”
- Certain things become better motivated if you can say to yourself something like, “oh, I know why we’re learning about Theorem X; it’s an instance of Phenomenon Y which has lots of other nontrivial instances.” Here I’ll give an example: Pontryagin duality.
- You are naturally led to ask lots of questions, and questions are great. “This looks a lot like Theory Z,” you might ask your professor. “What’s the connection?”
The idea that constantly working outside your comfort zone is key to progress appears to me to be a general phenomenon; in two-player games and sports, for example, playing opponents who are better than you is a great way to improve.
What I’m curious about, though, is whether the undergraduate math curriculum explicitly encourages “tendril” behavior. Perhaps it’s just something every math major should be motivated to do independently, but I can’t help but think that Ravi’s advice, which I’ve never seen written down anywhere else, should be more widely acknowledged.