10 Essential Career Lessons From Terence Tao

If you want to be successful, learning from great people is one of the best things you can do. It saves you a lot of time because you don’t need to learn things yourself the hard way. You can just find what works for them and apply it in your life.

It will be even better if you learn from people with different backgrounds. Different backgrounds give you different perspectives. They can give you lessons you’ve never thought about before.

In this article, I’d like to share with you some career advice from the perspective of a mathematician. The mathematician is Terence Tao who received the Fields Medal (the mathematics equivalent of the Nobel Prize) in 2006 when he was 31. He is also the youngest ever gold medalist of the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO). IMO is a high-school-level competition but he won his gold medal when he was only 13.

While Tao’s blog discusses many mathematical topics, it also has a Career Advice section. The advice targets aspiring mathematician but it’s applicable to other fields as well. I especially love the fact that the advice comes from the perspective of a great mathematician – a perspective I’ve never considered before.

You can read the Career Advice section yourself to get everything Terence Tao says about career, but here I want to give you the interesting lessons I’ve found. Here they are:

1. Build solid foundation first

Anything glamorous is likely to be highly competitive, and only those with the most solid of backgrounds (in particular, lots of experience with less glamorous aspects of the field) are likely to get anywhere. (source)

Many people want to gain recognition quickly and that’s why they want to do the glamorous things. But there’s a reason why those things are glamorous: they aren’t easy to achieve. So the best way to build your reputation is not by going after them but by building a solid foundation first. You need to patiently do the less glamorous things until you gain the proficiency required for something higher.

2. Focus on contribution

One should never make prizes or recognition a primary reason for pursuing mathematics; it is a better strategy in the long-term to just produce good mathematics and contribute to your field, and the prizes and recognition will take care of themselves  (source)

This is an important principle to remember because it’s easy to get distracted with prizes and recognition. If your focus is prizes and recognition, it’s easy to be disappointed when things don’t go as expected. You put yourself in an emotional roller-coaster that drains your mental energy. On the other hand, by focusing on contribution you keep your mental energy while increasing your value at the same time.

3. “Boring” things are important

… enjoy these competitions, but don’t neglect the more “boring” aspects of your mathematical education, as those turn out to be ultimately more useful. (source)

Some people just want to do the things they like. When they need to do something “boring”, they try to avoid it or just do it half-heartedly. But the fact is, there is always “boring” stuff you need to do in order to succeed. You can’t do only the fun part. Joel Spolsky said it well:

Oh, so, you’re saying I should hire you because you don’t work very hard when the work is boring? Well, there’s boring stuff in programming, too. Every job has its boring moments. And I don’t want to hire people that only want to do the fun stuff.

4. Diversify your experience

Even the best mathematics departments do not have strengths in every field, so being at several mathematics departments will broaden your education and expose you to a variety of mathematical cultures. (source)

No matter how good your current experience is, you still need to get new experiences. You need to diversify your experience to broaden your perspective. That helps you see things from different points of view.

5. Easy success hurts

If one is accustomed to easy success, one may not develop the patience necessary to deal with truly difficult problems. (source)

Many people want to achieve easy success. But that can hurt your career in the long term because you don’t expand your capacity. When the problems get tough, you won’t have the persistence to go through it. So don’t look for the easy way. Let your hard-earned successes prepare you to be even more successful.

6. Breakthroughs come from hard work

One needs to do a serious amount of reading and writing, and not just thinking, in order to get anywhere serious in mathematics; contrary to public opinion, mathematical breakthroughs are not powered solely (or even primarily) by “Eureka” moments of genius, but are in fact largely a product of hard work, directed of course by experience and intuition. (source)

Again, don’t expect easy success. “Luck” comes from hard work. As Thomas Jefferson said:

I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.

7. Follow the passion, not the people

Ultimately, it is better to follow the mathematics than to follow a mathematician. (source)

If you follow someone, you may get disappointed when he or she doesn’t meet your expectation. So a better idea is to follow the passion. Do something because it matters to you.

8. Ask “stupid” questions

So one should be unafraid to ask “stupid” questions, challenging conventional wisdom on a subject; the answers to these questions will occasionally lead to a surprising conclusion, but more often will simply tell you why the conventional wisdom is there in the first place, which is well worth knowing. (source)

The questions you ask guide your thinking process. Asking “stupid” questions gives you deeper understanding of a subject which allows you to see opportunities.

9. Focus on building, not defending

It is better to spend your energies on creating new mathematics than trying to fight over your old mathematics. (source)

Many people spend a lot of time and energy trying to prove themselves to others. That’s not a good way to spend your resources. A better thing to do is to keep contributing and providing value. Let the quality of your work speaks for itself.

10. Remember why

It is really easy to get bogged down in the details of some work and not recall the purpose of what one is actually doing; thus it is good to pause every now and then and recall why one is pursuing a particular goal. (source)

Don’t be too busy with the details that you forget the big picture. If you find yourself in such a situation, stop and look at what you do. What’s the purpose of it? Is it aligned with your value? Will it take you closer to your dreams?


The lessons above will help you have a successful and fulfilling career. Which ones do you think you need to apply right now?

Photo by Babenson


  1. this post is very interesting and valuable, thanks!

  2. […] Latumahina presents 10 Essential Career Lessons From Terence Tao posted at Life […]

  3. […] Optimizer: “10 Essential Career Lessons” from a brilliant mathemetician – no, […]

  4. Hey,,,
    though knew all things before and believed in them but never exercised… thanks for putting them together so I do realize what I miss and what should be done..

    thanks a ton….

  5. v k,
    It’s my pleasure… wish you all the best.

  6. This article is a good sign for me to start a change in my Mathematical thought.. Thanks for uploading!

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