A strange but brilliant man…
Back when I was in my last years of school I had a maths tutor that I went to a couple of times a week. He was an old Hungarian guy who lived in the same village as I did and offered cheap tuition. He had plenty of students and we all called him Uncle Feri.
To this day, I think he might be the strangest and most intelligent person I’ve ever met. He was a real polymath and tutored everything including maths, physics, literature, ancient and modern history, geography, philosophy and even Latin. Not only did he teach all of these subjects but he had a mind blowing grasp on all of them. He was able to play an entire game of chess without ever looking at the board, knowing where every piece stood, purely out of memory. Not only that, but he could play 2 or 3 such games simultaneously.
He was a brilliant but eccentric man. Throughout a one hour lesson he would drink no fewer than 3 shots of hard liquor, several glasses of wine or beer and would smoke at least a quarter of a pack of cigarillos, unless he was smoking his pipe which he often refilled a number of times throughout the lesson. He wouldn’t ever touch a cigarette though, always saying that smoking cigarettes was a filthy habit.
He had a weird dislike for the French, though he liked me despite going to a French school. I can’t remember a single lesson where he didn’t say “those damn French. If it wasn’t for the Americans, they’d be praying in German in Notre Dame right now!”. As I said, he was a strange guy.
He gave his classes in a small detached room in the house he built with his father 40 years earlier. The room was a total mess with books and dirty dishes all over the place. The tv was always on in the background and the stench of smoke and alcohol was always present. Often times, I would get into the room and he would be snoring on his bench by the table, dressed in nothing but shorts and flip flops. Going for math lessons was always a surreal experience.
An unexpected challenge…
One day, he invited a few of his students over and gave us a challenge. The challenge was a tricky maths equation. He said that whoever got the answer right would get some of his old shitty math books as a prize.
That day I spent about an hour trying to solve the problem before giving up. After all, there’s a reason I needed a tutor. After failing miserably, I turned to Google and quickly found that it was a popular maths problem with plenty of sites offering the solution.
The following week, we were all crammed in his small room, the smell of cured meat and smoke fresh in our nostrils. Uncle Feri looked up at us and asked “well? Who managed to solve it?”. It turned out that I wasn’t the only one who was way out of his depth and that nobody had managed to solve the problem. When nobody came forward to give the answer, I looked at him and said “the answer is 24”. His eyes lit up. “Very impressive, how did you find the solution?”. When I told him I Googled it he laughed and congratulated me, handing me the pile of dusty old books.
The other students looked as confused as I did. He sensed what everyone was wondering and said “you can’t always know everything in life. The important thing is that if you don’t know something, you at least know how to find it out.”
The 3 most important skills..
Uncle Feri often told me that the key to a successful life lies in 3 simple yet difficult skills: the first is always knowing how to find things out, in other words, being good at research. The second is having the ability to understand complex ideas and concepts. The third, is having a good memory. He always said that with those three skills, you can solve any problem in life. He also believed that all three of those skills could be practiced/learned.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what he said about those three skills lately as I’ve thought about my transition from studying political science to working in tech. In a world where we have access to unlimited information and resources online, being able to research, understand and remember things can be more life changing than ever. Whatever it is you want to learn, you can find countless articles, videos and lessons for it online. There are even courses by world class universities available for free online nowadays.
Uncle Feri believed that anyone could become a master at anything and I tend to agree with that. Of course, some people are better at certain things and some people have special talents, but at the end of the day, with a lot of dedication and practice, anyone can master almost anything unless there are natural limitations.
At the end of the day, the ability to research, understand and remember things might be the most valuable skills you can develop. They are the basis of all learning.
That being said, I unfortunately still suck at maths.