Isaac: Your book about learning how to learn math and science was born of personal experience. Can you share that?
Barbara: Yes, I flunked my way through elementary, middle, and high school math and science, and I just knew I could never do math and science. So I enlisted in the army, because I thought, “Well maybe I can learn another language and get paid to do it.” I learned Russian, and I ended up working on Soviet trawlers up in the Bering Sea.
I realized that I’d inadvertently boxed myself in. I hadn’t broadened my professional expertise, and there isn’t a lot of [demand] for people whose sole professional expertise is the ability to speak Russian. When I got out of the military at age 26, I decided to see if I could retrain my brain and learn math and science.
Isaac: You said you knew that you couldn’t learn math and science. It’s one of those self-limiting assumptions. What changed in your mind? How did you make that change to say, “You know what, maybe I can?”
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Barbara: Two things. Number one is, when you’re in the military, you don’t have much say on what you can do in your career. You get sent to where you’re sent to. You work for who you’re told to work for, and you don’t have much flexibility. I didn’t ever want to be in that situation again. I wanted to call my own shots in my career, and if you are very limited in your career options, it’s tough to call your own shots and be flexible.
Then the other spur was along the lines of, “You know, if I could learn a language, isn’t math kind of like a language?”