Friday, May 1, 2020

Against the Odds: Lessons From the Amazing Story of Ramanujan

A while back I read the story of Srinivasa Ramanujan, a mathematician from India. It was an amazing story, a true “rags-to-riches” story in the world of science. Here was someone who lived in poverty, far outside the circle of science and without enough formal training. And yet he managed to create world-class breakthroughs in mathematics. He ended up working at the University of Cambridge; he was also a Fellow of the Royal Society. He died when he was only 32 years old, but he’d already made a lot of contributions.

You might want to read the story yourself, but here are the lessons I learned:
1. Know your “calling.”
In India in the early 20th century, mathematics wasn’t really an option for making a decent living. That was especially true for someone without the necessary formal education. But Ramanujan kept working on his math anyway. It’s clear that his motivation wasn’t money. It was his love for the subject. Mathematics was his “calling.”
What about you? Do you know what your “calling” is? What is it that makes you feel fulfilled?

2. Make the most out of your resources.
Ramanujan had very limited resources. He wasn’t in a university and barely had access to books. But he made the most out of what he got.
When he was 16, he got a mathematics book that contained 5000 theorems. Most people might take it lightly or just read it in passing, but Ramanujan studied it in detail. He soaked up the knowledge in it. He made it a launch pad for his own mathematical research.
Given the same amount of resources, there is a big difference between those who make the most out of them and those who don’t. In fact, there is a big difference between those who make the most out of limited resources and those who don’t given abundant resources.
If you can read this blog then you are lucky. You have access to the most amazing resources ever invented: the Internet. The question is: do you make the most out of it?

3. Stay true to your dreams in the face of adversity.
There was a time in Ramanujan’s life when he was at the brink of starvation. Even worse, nobody appreciated his work. Given such a situation, most people would just give up their dreams. But not Ramanujan. He kept at it in the face of adversity.
Giving up is easy. Everybody can do it. It’s staying true to your dreams in the face of adversity that makes you special.

4. Focus.
Ramanujan was very focused in his pursuit of mathematics. He even failed to get a degree at college because he failed his other subjects. That, of course, is not something to follow. But it shows the kind of obsessiveness he had.
Your life must still be balanced, but focus is necessary. You can’t achieve anything great without focus.

5. Put yourself out there.
As brilliant as Ramanujan was, nobody would have ever known about him if he just kept everything by himself. He needed to put himself out there and, fortunately, he did that.
Once, when he was looking for a job, he showed his mathematical notebooks to a potential employer. The person happened to be a member of the mathematical society. Impressed by his work, he introduced Ramanujan to other mathematicians who eventually helped him.
Do you want to have opportunities come your way? Then do yourself a favor: put yourself out there.

6. Know your strength.
Mathematics is a broad subject, but Ramanujan didn’t try to master everything. He knew his strength: infinity-related concepts. But – as his mentor recalled – he often didn’t know other mathematical concepts. He knew his specialty and stayed in it. He didn’t try to be anyone else.
What about you? Do you know what your strength is?

You might be fighting against the odds, but if you do the right things, your dreams are still within reach. Just don’t give up.
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