First of all, disclaimer. I am a math geek. I’ve always enjoyed solving math problems. I even got compare my “math biceps” with other math geeks on the International Math Olympiad. But I wasn’t a wunderkind. I always had better grades than average, but still mediocre for a long time. This is the story of how I improved from mediocre to the national team.
In the spring of ninth grade I qualified to go to the national round of the Bulgarian Math Olympiad. This round had about a hundred or so contestants from high schools all over the country.
My performance was kind of average. I didn’t rank especially high, even compared to the other nine graders. I wanted to compete for the National team, the top six, but it I was far from it.
Four of us from my high school made it to the national round. One of them, Doby, was in twelfth grade and already on the national team. He got a gold medal on IMO that July. There was one more twelve grader, who was on the informatics national team, and won a gold medal there. Plus me and one of my classmates.
The four of us hang out together at night, playing card games. We talked about a variety of topics, from which I don’t remember anything. What I remember though, is that at some point we asked Doby can do we need to get on the national team.
“Read ten math books this summer.”
I was expecting a much more involved answer. Reading ten books sounded too simple, though not easy. I hadn’t heard have much other advice on how to prepare to the top level, and I heeded it. That summer, I went to the public city library and read several of the mathematics books. Number theory, geometry, combinatorics, etc. I didn’t know what books to look for, but they have a corner with mathematic books, some of them decades old. I started reading whatever was the most interesting to me.
I read fewer than 10 books that summer, but I learned a lot. I also got to solve a bunch of math problems, for fun! This increased my appetite for problem solving and learning, and I continued practicing through the fall term. When the winter math competition came, the problems seemed easy to me. Exhilarated, I solved everything an hour early. I was super excited to see the results.
Then I realized I messed up one of the easier problems. I lost almost all the points for it. I got dishearthened and disappointed of my rushed approach. Still, when the results came out I got third place for tenth grade. I was happy. This was the first time I had placed among the top. That night I got drunk and threw up for the first time in my life.
The success gave me confidence, though I still believed that I have a long way to go until I have a chance to be in the national team. At the national round, I advanced to the top twelve. Surprising even for myself, after a few qualifier rounds, I got the last, sixth spot in the national team. That July, I earned a silver medal at the International Math Olympiad that July.
I had momentum.
The previous summer I had started looking beyond being thought by others, and decided that I can try to learn anything that I can wrap my mind around.
The 10 books I read showed me that I don’t need to wait for others to tell me what to learn. I could go and find the resources myself. That there are a lot of awesome opportunities to learn that are already available. The books were available in the library, but without the advice I wouldn’t have reached for them on my own.
This was my edge. I do not have higher IQ than the other students I often beat at the competitions. I befriended them and admired their wits and skills. I think we were all lucky enough to have enough IQ to be able to solve the hard math competition problems. And I believe that there are plenty others, even smarter, who didn’t even compete at all.
Beyond a given IQ, the determining factor for success became the preparation. I believe that a very large proportion of people could be great at problem solving, given enough motivation and access to resources. We can compare the average student today with the best students hundred years ago. Students hundred years ago had less resources to prepare from, and had lower math skills.
I was much luckier than most. I went to math high schools where I got more math preparation. And I was lucky to get advice which caused me to seek further knowledge and develop skills on my own. To go beyond what I was supposed to learn, and discover on my own.
Reading ten books in the summer of 2004 changed my trajectory and has positive effect on me even today.