The importance of direction

Lately I’ve been reflecting on the impact that having a direction (or lack of it) has had in my life. For a long time now—since around the time I first set foot on a university campus—it’s been clear to me that I would be doing and writing about mathematics for the rest of my life. However, perhaps because I have never been particularly interested in thinking about money I never necessarily assumed that I would be paid to do mathematics. My expectation was that I might need to have a day job to support myself and my mathematical hobby.

Recently, I’ve been thinking that being paid to do mathematics would be great because it would allow me to devote more time to it. For example, I am quite proud of my latest paper—but it took a lot of time to write, and would have taken even longer if I didn’t already have a job as a postdoctoral researcher. One of my previous papers was written during evenings and weekends since at the time I was working full-time at an internship and it wasn’t ideal.

Thus, I’ve been doing the things necessary to apply to academic positions like putting together a research statement. During this process the importance of direction has been made abundantly clear to me and I can’t help but lament the amount of time I spent as an undergraduate and graduate student with unclear direction and ridiculous misconceptions.

For example, as an undergraduate student I studied the Ramanujan–Nagell equation and came up with a new solution for it that I hadn’t seen published anywhere. My thought was: this is so cool, I have to share this with the world. So I wrote a short report, gave a copy to one of my professors who I thought might be interested, and uploaded a copy to my website. But what to do beyond that? My thinking was: I don’t know how to get it published somewhere, but I do know how to make it accessible to anyone who wants to read it via the Internet. I told myself that 99% of the value comes from writing the report and I didn’t need the additional 1% “seal of approval” that comes from getting it published. Now I know this is totally backwards—at least when it comes to job applications almost all of a paper’s value is derived from being published.

Looking back, my advice to myself would absolutely be to try to get the report published. Maybe I could’ve gotten it published and maybe not, but either way it would have been a very valuable learning experience. Incidentally, the report does seem to be of value to some people: it’s been cited by two OEIS entries, two published papers, a PhD thesis, and Noam Elkies recently gave a talk referencing it (!!!):

We state several finiteness theorems, outline some of the connections among them, explain how a finiteness proof can be ineffective, and (time permitting) sketch Nagell’s proof and an even more elementary one discovered only 12 years ago by C. Bright.

Maybe I’ll come back to that result and get it formally published some day, but I already have more than enough papers on the table. At the very least it’s encouraging to know that I’m in no danger of running out of material to research and write about anytime soon. Even more importantly, I’ve learned how important direction is to achieving your dreams.