John Urschel: Pro football player-turned mathematician : Short Wave As kids, some of us dream of multiple careers: being an astronaut AND the next president. Or digging up dinosaurs AND selling out concert stadiums. As we get older, there's pressure to pick one path. But what if we didn't have to?

After all, John Urschel didn't. He's a mathematician and professor at MIT. But before that, he played football for the Baltimore Ravens. Today on the show, Monday night football! Host Regina G. Barber talks to Urschel about linear algebra and following his dream of becoming a mathematician while living the dream as a NFL player.

This mathematician had another career: professional football player

This mathematician had another career: professional football player

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Mathematician John Urschel contains multitudes. These days, he researches linear algebra at MIT, but he also had another career: professional NFL football player. The Washington Post/The Washington Post via Getty Im hide caption

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The Washington Post/The Washington Post via Getty Im

Mathematician John Urschel contains multitudes. These days, he researches linear algebra at MIT, but he also had another career: professional NFL football player.

The Washington Post/The Washington Post via Getty Im

As kids, some of us dream of multiple careers: being an astronaut AND the next president. Or digging up dinosaurs AND selling out concert stadiums. As we get older, there's pressure to pick one. But what if we didn't have to?

After all, John Urschel didn't.

These days, he's a mathematician and professor at MIT, where he researches linear algebra. But before that career took off, he played football. First, as student at Pennsylvania State University, and later, for the Baltimore Ravens.

When Urschel started college, he was on a third path: become an engineer. But as he took classes, he loved the way his math professors helped him go beyond numbers, and prove why equations were true. He says one professor offered to do research with him, which eventually helped him realize he wanted to pursue a PhD in math. So, he pivoted from juggling engineering and football — to juggling math and football.

"I was simultaneously falling in love with, you know, math as an actual career, taking all of these college math classes, while also trying to be the best football player I could be," he remembers.

Urschel says that often involved packing many things, like weight training and classes, into the early morning. "Like I was the person who was trying to take the 6 a.m. slot ... I want the 8 a.m., 9 a.m. classes so I could do all the football things I needed to do, do all the math things I needed to do in a day. "

He went on to work full-time as a professional football player at the same time he was a full-time PhD student at MIT.

"I was taking three courses, and I was doing P-sets in Baltimore ... via correspondence," he says.

But he notes that his career path is also unusual for much more common reasons: Typically, an MIT math professor would have, as a student, competed in international math competitions, never taken time off and studied at an Ivy League institution for undergrad.

From his atypical career path, Urschel has learned a few lessons that, when prompted, he'll offer up:

First, do not play the comparison game. Do not focus on prestige or how much and how far long other people are in comparison to you. It's something he reminds his students of a lot. It can be a very negative spiral.

"That's a really unhealthy and really unhappy place to be," he says.

Second, be critical of yourself.

"It's really important, if you like something and you do want to be good at it, to be critical of yourself," he says. But, he emphasizes, "you should only be critical of yourself and hard on yourself compared to your previous self." Check in with yourself and ask questions like, How am I improving? How am I going to be better than I was two months ago?

Got science to share? Email us at shortwave@npr.org.

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Today's episode was produced by Rachel Carlson. It was edited by Rebecca Ramirez. Brit Hanson checked the facts. Becky Brown was the audio engineer.