Icebreaker with… mathematician and former NFL player John Urschel
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John Urschel isn’t exactly someone you want to compare your stats with. The former Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman retired from the NFL in 2017, author of a book in 2019, and earned her doctorate in mathematics from MIT this year. He is also very funny.
We phoned and talked about very different goals, math and disciplines.
Your career leap was a bit more public than most. Any advice for someone looking to pivot?
I was a serious mathematician and also a serious football player, for about seven or eight years, simultaneously. So it was less about stopping something and starting something else than doing two things and dropping one. But for people trying to make a change, the best advice I can give is: make sure you’re ready for that change. I think it’s important to have a plan for what you’ll do if what you’re currently doing isn’t working.
One of the things that makes it really hard for people to change sports or anything is that when you have a job, you start to think of your job as who you are. Your job is something that in some way defines you to your family, friends and other people. I think that actually limits a lot of people because they have a hard time imagining themselves outside of a certain thing. I think it’s really important to dissociate yourself from what you’re doing. In my mind, it allows you to do different things.
Any suggestions for a parent who wants to get their child interested in math?
The best thing you can do is, first of all, create a positive environment around learning. The thing you should emphasize to them is the idea of creativity, the sense of wonder, the sense of discovery. I would recommend buying your kids some fun math books to read, encouraging them to ask interesting and difficult questions you might not have the answers to, and really sparking their creativity. More than focusing on results, scores or grades.
I’m not good at it, but I really like playing chess for some reason. But if I’m 100% realistic, I more or less have no hobbies, because I have a three-year-old child.
I think most people—my wife, friends of mine who have seen my office—would say no. But I think I’m organized. I’m pretty organized with my time, when I was doing [math and football], I always did the most important thing first. Although, I think organizing over time and organizing over space, maybe they’re two different variables.
Your favorite movie about college students? Your favorite sports movie?
Goodwill hunting– I don’t think there should even be a question here, there has to be – and Friday night lights.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.