No mathematician should ever allow himself to forget that mathematics, more than any other art or science, is a young man’s game.
—G.H. Hardy, A Mathematician’s Apology
In 2013, a 58-year-old part-time lecturer at the University of New Hampshire solved a math problem that had stumped top mathematicians for decades.1
Yitang Zhang was a total unknown when he published a mathematical proof relating to gaps between prime numbers in the prestigious journal Annals of Mathematics. To say that Zhang came out of nowhere is an understatement—he’d published only one other paper, in 2001. The dude had even worked at a friend’s Subway franchise in his late 30s. I’m no expert when it comes to the lives of famous mathematicians, but I’d wager than most of them don’t work at Subway past the age of, say, 20.
He’s not working at Subway anymore. Zhang received a slew of awards and prizes from his peers in the mathematical community and the world at large, including a MacArthur Award. He was offered several academic positions, including his current one–a full professorship at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Mathematics is a young man’s game, as G.H. Hardy famously stated. Media accounts paint Zhang as highly self-confident, and that’s likely true. Still, he must have battled self-doubt as he toiled in obscurity, each passing year carrying him further from the age when great mathematicians do their best work.
There’s nothing glamorous about perseverance, is there?
Some people meet with stunning success right away, and that’s great! But for most of us, success is about grinding it out—often for far longer than we thought we’d have to.
If you’re traveling a long but worthy road, stay on it.