Rota’s 10 Life Lessons

Life lessons

You might not have heard of MIT professor Gian-Carlo Rota but you should know Rota’s 10 Life Lessons.

Rota was an internationally respected mathematician and philosopher, and an influential and admired teacher. He was credited with transforming the field of combinatorial logic into one with a wide range industrial applications – from computers to communications to pharmaceutical research. He showed mathematics could be fun and practical by applying his theory to gambling and chess.

According to his Rota’s dissertation advisor, “”He really loved mathematics all his life very passionately. He was also a person of great cultural and literary attainment. He loved to write; loved to edit.” In that vein, I’ve added my own commentary to Rota’s 10 Life Lessons:

  1. Rules of Lecturing
    “Have one main point. Don’t run over time. Relate to audience.” This applies to giving talks and running meetings as well. Also, mingling at cocktail parties.
  2. Blackboard Technique
    People are unlikely to read the slides afterwards. Make sure you deliver your message the first time. If it doesn’t stick then, it won’t later.
  3. Publish the same results several times.
    In lecturing, communication, and life in general, repetition is your friend. Repeat your key message many times over a long period of time.
  4. You are more likely to be remembered by your expository work.
    We are obsessed by innovation and being first. But the first-mover advantage is overrated and clear communication of others’ work might have greater impact
  5. Every mathematician has only a few tricks.
    You don’t need to be good at everything. Leverage your strengths and surround yourself with people who complement them.
  6. Do not worry about your mistakes.
    Like R.H. Macy, Marilyn Monroe, and Abraham Lincoln, learn from your failures.
  7. Use the Feynman method.
    If you can’t adequately explain something to a twelve-year old, you probably don’t really understand it that well yourself.
  8. Give lavish acknowledgments.
    Just as failure is rarely the fault of a single individual, success isn’t usually the result of a cheerful superhero. Give credit to everyone involved.
  9. Write informative introductions.
    Follow Aristotle’s advice: “Tell people what you are going to tell them, tell it to them, then tell them what you just told them.”
  10. Be prepared for old age.
    Facts have a half-life. If you don’t reinvent yourself and commit yourself to a lifetime of learning, you become less relevant. In Rota’s words, an institution.

To me, Gian-Carlo Rota’s 10 life lessons definitely compute.

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One Response to Rota’s 10 Life Lessons

  1. Cathy Cooper August 7, 2023 at 3:55 am #

    A worthy set of challenges to live up to but utterly practical and worthwhile.

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