Chapter 33: Danica McKellar

Chapter 33: Danica McKellar

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Extraordinary Teens

Danica McKellar

Actress, Author, and Math-Whiz

Quick Facts:

First big acting role was Winnie in The Wonder Years

Author of her recent New York Times bestselling books, Math Doesn’t Suck and Kiss My Math

Has starred in many TV shows as an adult, such as The West Wing and How I Met Your Mother

Some movies she has appeared in are Inspector Mom, Path of Destruction, and 21 and a Wake-Up

Has a BS in Mathematics from UCLA

Co-authored a new math theorem which is now named after her and the other authors: The Chayes-McKellar-Winn Theorem

I’ve been acting since I was ten, and over the years I’ve had the opportunity to play many different acting roles in Hollywood. But I kept a healthy perspective that allowed me to do much more than be an actress. I’m now an author of math books that are helping girls get over their fear of math!

Even as a preteen, my mom always helped me keep my perspective by reminding me that, “Acting is just a hobby.” From day one, my parents were always saying that education came first and they never over-inflated the importance of Hollywood or fame.

In fact, my role of “Winnie Cooper” on ABC’s hit show The Wonder Years was originally going to be a guest role on the first episode. When the producers asked me to be a regular character on the show, my mom hesitated because of the huge time commitment. Only because the other moms on the set were so dedicated to keeping their kids as “normal” as possible, did she allow it. I’m so glad she always prioritized my education and kept me from getting swept up in the Hollywood life.

Even with all that support, being on a big TV show for over six years, I still had a few issues to deal with. I mean, I was a middle school girl who was getting a lot of attention… for being someone else! Amidst all that fame, what most people didn’t realize was that I was also having somewhat of an identity crisis.

From the age of twelve, most people called me “Winnie” instead of Danica. Like most girls at that age, I was already dealing with the issue of self-esteem while struggling to discover who I was and what I was capable of doing. Being on The Wonder Years was a great experience, but it also presented a deeper challenge. The question “who am I?” became more complicated than it is for most teenagers. I realized I needed to figure how who I was, beyond this character of Winnie Cooper. What would my value be if I never had that?

So when I entered UCLA as a freshman, I decided I needed to do something completely different from acting. Instead of being a film or theater major, I became a math major. Yep, math. And believe it or not, math gave me a whole new confidence in myself that I’d never known before.

This is part of the reason I wrote my first book, Math Doesn’t Suck! I wrote it not only to teach math, but to help other young girls build self-confidence that comes from feeling smart. I know that I used to be terrified of math, and overcoming that fear was a huge step for me.

When I was young, regardless of my acting successes, I was terrified of math and I’d often come home and cry about it. With the help of a few great teachers, I eventually overcame my dislike for the subject and discovered that studying math gave me an opportunity to redefine myself.

One of these teachers in particular, taught me how to relax before taking tests, and it made all the difference in the world, and allowed me to develop a true love of mathematics. All I needed was that shift in my thinking to completely change my performance.

Math CAN be fun and you CAN do it.

After high school, I took a formal break from acting and decided to pursue a degree in mathematics (who would have thought!). During my last two years in college at UCLA, I really put a lot of time and effort into my math classes. One day, a professor recognized this drive in me and a fellow student and he asked us, “How would you two like to be professional mathematicians for a year and try doing some original research?” That sounded challenging—and intriguing!

Together with my friend Brandy Winn, we spent about a year learning all the background material we would need to know in order to tackle this particular math problem. Then, for four months of intense work, we actually proved a new math theorem, and got published as well. It was a wild ride and it took a lot of effort… but I have to admit that it’s pretty cool to have a math theorem named after me.

And yet I still vividly remember how scary math used to seem when I was in junior high—and how unappealing. I mean, wasn’t math just for nerdy boys with pocket protectors and lab coats?

The reality is, we don’t have to choose between being fashionable and popular and being smart. Most of us have read plenty of teen magazines that show us new hair and fashion ideas, and math actually helps us to be fabulous, too! I mean, who wants to get ripped off while shoe shopping, or miscalculate how much that “extra 30% off” will cost? Besides, math helps prepare us for better paying jobs, and we’d better make some good money if we want to support that shopping habit!

In junior high, math also seemed “too hard” and just for supersmart people—and I wasn’t clear on when I would ever use math outside the classroom. My teachers often couldn’t answer the question, “But when would I use this in real life?”

The truth is, math doesn’t have to be scary, and when you understand math, you are much more powerful. Doing math actually makes you mentally stronger—it’s like going to the gym for your brain!

And with a solid understanding of math, you have so many more options in life. There are a ton of jobs out there that use math, which at first blush seem to have nothing to do with math or science. Everyone from doctors to interior designers to party planners need math (fractions, proportions, you name it!). And if you want to own your own business someday, whether it be a science lab or a fashion boutique, math will keep those doors open. After all, money makes the world go around….

In my second book, Kiss My Math, I have a whole section called “Math in Jobs You Might Not Expect” where I interviewed tons of fabulous women in careers like this, so the reader can see some of the options you might not have thought of before.

Besides those practical uses of math, it’s also a great tool for building confidence, believe it or not. When you think that you can’t do something, and then discover that you can—well, it’s one of the most empowering experiences you can have, because this in turn impacts how you think about other things in life that you feel you “can’t” do. The next time you feel like giving up, you might say, “Hey, just because I think I can’t do this, I might be wrong. After all, I didn’t think I could do math, but I did… so I can probably do this other thing, too!”

It’s an amazing transformation, and I just love the e-mails I get from girls who read my books, when they realize how math affects their perception of themselves. I love to see other young people—especially girls—learn to first value themselves for their intelligence. This is very powerful, because it brings with it an unshakable confidence: That kind of confidence that comes from feeling smart—and knowing that you are capable of facing any challenge that life might bring.

It doesn’t matter what you’re doing or what you want to do in the future. Confidence is what gets us off the launch pad. I like the saying, If you think you can, or can’t, you’re right.

I think one of the best methods in overcoming a challenge is to “act as if” you have already mastered something. But sometimes when we are having a tough time it’s difficult to just “act as if” when we have no previous reference point of what is actually possible. It’s easy to think, “This is hard. I can’t do this. I’m done.” But only by trying again and keeping our faith alive can we get the outcome we want. The problem is never a question of ability; it’s about our psychology—our mindset, in other words. It really is mind over matter.

Altering the way I looked at math absolutely changed my life. Now, I can’t help but feel a small thrill of anticipation when somebody thinks I can’t do something, because it challenges me to make it happen even more!

It’s odd to think that a few years ago I was freaking out about math and now I’m a New York Times bestselling author on the very subject I struggled with. Upon the release of my first book, Math Doesn’t Suck, I was named Person of the Week on ABC World News with Charles Gibson. That was such an incredible feeling—it blew my mind! I was even more excited when I knew that so many more books were going to find their way into the hands of more readers. If you believe in yourself and keep at it, you can truly overcome any obstacle that seems to be in front of you.

The ultimate key to success can be found in the moment you feel like quitting—that’s when you get to make a decision. Norman Vincent Peale once said: It’s always too soon to quit. And he was exactly right. To take that extra step and show yourself that you have more strength and more endurance than you ever thought you had… well, that’s life changing. That is the moment of opportunity.

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