Throwback Thursday: Schoolchildren questions for statisticians

Going through our archives, we came across this great post from May 23, 2013,“Schoolchildren questions for statisticians” that we wanted to share with you in case you missed it the first time around. 

It must be that time of year because I was asked to speak at two different schools in downtown Los Angeles this week, one elementary school and one middle school.  The Perfect Jennifer probably won the coolest teacher award for getting her younger sister, a world champion in mixed martial arts and subject of a made for TV movie this summer to come talk for career day.


However, after the mobs of autograph seekers had departed, there were still plenty of questions for the old mom, just as there were at the elementary school in MacArthur Park (yes the same of disco song and gang fame).

Here are some of my favorite questions and the answers that I gave.

Q. Were you always a math genius?

I was not a particularly good student. I got in trouble a lot for fighting and I wasn’t all THAT interested in school. I think I started being interested in math when I was in the sixth grade just because the math teacher (Sister Marion) was really nice and some of my other teachers were really mean. I mean, really mean, like throwing stuff at me. It’s true, I was an annoying child, but still. Since I liked her, I liked her class, so I studied harder for it and did better.

Q. Is your mother proud of you?

Yes, I believe she is. I’ve gotten a lot of education, started a company that does good work, been a teacher and been able to take care of my children well, so I would say, yes, she is proud of me.

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    Q. What do you dislike about your job?

    I really had to think about this one and for a long time I could not think of anything. Then, The Perfect Jennifer reminded me that sometimes I have to go to North Dakota in the winter. That is the one thing I don’t like about my job, when I have to go somewhere it is really cold because I hate cold weather.

    Q. What was your Plan B?

    I had to think about that, too, for a while. I finally said that I really like being a statistician and the work that I do and if it doesn’t work out, if the grant that I’m working on now doesn’t get funded, if my game I’m working on now doesn’t sell then I think I will just try again. It’s like my daughter Ronda (who spoke earlier in the morning) said. Someone asked her in an interview once,

    “You’ve won every match so far in your career with the arm bar in the first round. What are you going to do if you try the arm bar on someone one day and it doesn’t work?”

    She replied,

    “Well, I guess in that case, I’d probably try again.”

    (In fact, if you saw her last match, that is exactly what she did.) So, I said, I think my Plan B would be to try again to succeed as a statistician.

    Q. What do you like about your job?

    Everything. I like traveling. I like working with really smart, nice people which is all I work with any more, because if they are jerks, I just turn down the contract and don’t work with them. I like the fact that every project is something new, sometimes it’s seeing if a program works, some days it’s trying  to catch fraud, other days it is teaching a class. I like the fact that I don’t have to get up before 10 o’clock in the morning.

    Finally I told them,

    If you don’t remember anything else I said or that anyone else said today, remember this, because it took me a long time to figure it out. Don’t EVER believe that other people are smarter than you, that they have some special kind of math brain that they can get it and you can’t, that everyone knows more than you. If they do know more than you it is just because they worked at it longer and harder and if you work long enough and hard enough you will get to the same place. Don’t believe you need  to  be a certain race or age or look a certain way to start a technology company and be successful. It just is not true. I used to think that way, that people who are really good at math were not people like me, certainly none of the math professors I had in college or people I saw on television talking about starting companies looked like me. None of that matters. Now I write the sort of things that I could not imagine even understanding when I was young and I toss it off like it’s nothing and it IS nothing because I’ve been doing it for twenty years. Math, martial arts, programming – anything – you just bang away at and you get it eventually. Why do you think they call it hacking?


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