Think you're bad at math? Don't count on it

Career stress! Good news and bad news.

Are you good at math, or bad at it?

If you're like most Americans, you probably have an automatic, preprogrammed answer to this question: either you're a "math person" or you're not. Like eye color and shoe size, math ability is something you're born with, and there's not much you can do to change that.

But contrary to popular opinion, that idea just doesn't add up.

Why? Because this assumption misses two essential factors in the calculation of math potential: hard work and self-confidence.

As a recent article in The Atlantic magazine points out, success in math classes is much more closely linked to preparation than to innate talent. Simply put, better prepared students (who may have been working on math problems from a very young age, for example) are more likely to do better in math classes early on in school. Those with less preparation tend to do less well.

Because we assume that math ability is genetic, students who do less well don't try as hard and do worse in subsequent math classes. Students who do better assume they have more inherent ability, study harder to take advantage of it, and continue to do well in later math courses.

This reasoning is reinforced by research that shows that IQ itself can be raised — intelligence, like any other skill, can be improved with hard work.

So what does this mean for you?

Put simply, you're not locked in to a predetermined "bad at math" category. You can get out of your math classes what you put into them.  This matters, as economist Allison Shrager argues in a recent blog post, since more and more of the best paying jobs with the best potential career prospects require strong math backgrounds.

Not good at math? Give it another try. Hard work and dedication just may be the answer to the problem.