On failure, also coconut chocolate chip cookies

2 May

Lately I’ve been thinking about failure a lot.  I have my prelims coming up in a few weeks, and I’ve been anxious and fretful about failing them.  Nothing bad really happens if I fail them.  I’ll just have to study for them again, though that’s annoying- weeks spent trying to remember/relearn all the math I’m expected to know for a three hour exam (or two).  The harder thing, harder than restudying and relearning (which is sort of fun), would be knowing that I failed.  That there was an expectation for me, a line to cross to prove that I’ll be an okay mathematician, and I fell short of it.  That I should have been able to do something, but I didn’t because I’m not quite good enough.

This is pretty terrifying and terrible and there’s all sorts of stuff written out there about math anxiety.  But here’s the thing: math is always like this.  There’s always a quiz, or a homework problem, or a few minutes in a lecture, or a paper that you feel like you just don’t and can’t understand.  Part of what’s so beautiful about math is that it’s really hard.  And part of throwing yourself into your work (baking or math or whatever you do) is letting go of the fear that you won’t be good enough, that it’s too hard, that you aren’t up to the challenge.

I bring this up because I made these coconut chocolate chip cookies just now and they’re almost inedible.  Food blogs and TV shows always have pictures of gorgeous food but most food doesn’t look like that.  In fact, if you bake cookies often, I bet you have had this happen:



The cookies are flat, there’s big holes where the unincorporated baking soda lifted out of the cookie, there’s not enough flour to hold them together, and the edges taste like scrambled eggs (it’s gross).  I bet one of these things has happened to you before, or you don’t bake, or you are lying, or you are my friend Edward.

But I did everything right!  Not really: I added coffee, and I didn’t incorporate my baking powder.  Up to the very end the cookies looked like they’d be okay:

Nut another pun... these drive me coconuts!

Nut another pun… these drive me coconuts!

Gotta put this dough in the oven before i eat it all

Gotta put this dough in the oven before i eat it all

And then they come out and they’re awful.


I failed at these cookies.  I fail at math sometimes.  I am not a failure of a person, and while I enjoy baking and math, being great at either of them does not define me as a person.  In fact, being infallible at both of them would define me as a not-person and you should check me for robot parts.  Speaking of segues, an old friend of mine has a wonderful post about failure, and here’s a quote from it:

“There’s a simple reason why tackling a hard problem can lead to depressive symptoms: you’re necessarily wrong 99% of the time.”

A few days ago a great blog post showed up on slate about being bad at math [disclaimer: this guy was at school with me.  Again this disclaimer makes no sense/is irrelevant because I didn’t know him].  A great quote from it:

“Mathematical failure – much like romantic failure – leaves us raw and vulnerable. It demands excuses.”

The humidity was off, my oven doesn’t work well, the baking soda is old: excuses in baking, perhaps, sound more rational when written than excuses in math (this is too hard, I hate math, I’m too stupid for this).  But they’re still excuses, which are what we make when we fail.

I’m human, I make mistakes, I fail sometimes.  I make excuses.  But I try to learn from my mistakes, and I’m going to make cookies again, and I’m going to keep doing math, and I’m going to fail again (hopefully not in a few weeks).  And this is all okay.  This is life!  This is why this blog is about baking and math!


Recipe (follow it but don’t do the step that I point out) [taken from taste of home]:


1 c flour

1/2 tsp baking soda


1 stick butter

3/4 c white sugar

Then beat in:

1 egg

1 tsp vanilla


Mix your dry and wet ingredients.  This delicious stuff is batter starter.  Add anything to it, but I added:

1 c chocolate chips

1/2 c shredded coconut

1/2 c walnuts

Drop by tablespoons onto your silpat or parchment paper or greased baking sheet, and bake at 375 (NOT 350) for 10 minutes.


2 Responses to “On failure, also coconut chocolate chip cookies”

  1. j2kun May 3, 2013 at 3:21 am #

    Well, hey, if we do math as a team we can at least feel stupid together. What’s a diffeomorphism again?

    • yenergy May 4, 2013 at 6:46 pm #

      Yay teamwork! I definitely just wikipedia’d “homeomorphism”…

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