Title says it all: I’ll maybe add thoughts here from time to time, but probably the Q&A through comments (and subsequent post updates) will generate much more valuable discussion than anything I could do myself.
Maybe we can start with what the obvious/boring history; there’s probably much more story and philosophy behind a lot of these things, but it’s hard for me to remember that stuff without proper context (maybe the comments/Q&A will spur some memories/thoughts!):
- I lived in College Station, TX (a small university city) through 5th grade (around 2006, for context), and didn’t really do much math outside of the UIL competitions (and only the local ones, not the state ones; I don’t remember why—maybe my school didn’t fund it). I had a couple other friends also into the UIL competitions, and there was a local Chinese school community behind them, but overall during this time I hadn’t really heard of the more interesting math opportunities for younger students (notably AoPS and AMC).
- I (randomly, from my perspective at least) moved to St. Louis, MO (a much bigger university city :)) in 6th grade (fall 2006), where I met (and was overwhelmed, hence motivated, by) a ridiculously strong (especially compared to previous environment) peer group in the same grade (Max Schindler, Runpeng Liu, Haohang Xu) at Ladue Middle School. I don’t know when/how/if I would’ve gotten started on math (or anything else with a similar level of passion/enthusiasm) without our resulting camaraderie, leading concretely for three of us (along with Max’s sister) to a close 2nd place team finish at 2009 MATHCOUNTS nationals (which also happens to be a Youtube-semi-famous year of competition), and one of the last ever Obama visits (he’s too busy nowadays). Well, I really need to credit AoPS too—I heard about it randomly from a family friend in 7th grade, and then voraciously read many books in the series while also participating actively in the forums, in both productive and (to my embarrassment, unfounded pride, and periodical entertainment) certain unproductive ways.
- In freshman year (where I think the distinction is important because it’s before my first MOP), I had all the resources I needed, but less camaraderie/direction, since my closest Ladue friends moved away from math then (except for Max, to some degree). Fortunately, I still had a good deal of online (gchat/AoPS) math friends from MATHCOUNTS and such in middle school, and maybe together we did some (or told each other to do some) Engel, ACoPS, USAMO/ISL problems. I also mocked the inaugural USAJMO with Ray Li. And I did happen to make green MOP my freshman year, but who knows; with a different choice of problems I could’ve easily not made it, and my life may have turned out much differently. (This sounds ominous, but honestly MOP, especially the first year, gave me an amazing community to work and hang out with, even stronger in many ways than the local Ladue community back in middle school—though with the school year being longer than the summer, that had its charm too.)
- I had much more turbulent experiences the rest of high school. For example, concretely, in terms of contest results, I got near last at RMM one year, and (near?) first in the following MOP TSTST. But results tell only a small fraction of the story, and generally I’d say I’ve gained much less from contests per se than more from the less concrete things attached like community, collaboration, and just the process of loving and spending so much time and energy on math. I might write about all of this (read: pull up college essays, at least for some things) sometime. Honestly, I can’t remember everything off the top of my head, and you’ll probably have to ask me the right questions to get me to write it down. (Maybe I should journal/blog more…) One thing I do remember very distinctly: even in the darkest times (hooray, first world problems!), Problems from the Book kept me invigorated by giving me some sense of story and direction in math (as opposed to Olympiad problems, which are usually presented without context), both at the high school/elementary level and beyond (and in particular it got me into number theory, then and currently my favorite subject—but we’ll see how it goes). Along with the MOP community, it inspired me to write/discuss/etc. problems for the ELMO and OMO, which for me turned out to be some of the strongest bonding experiences during high school, at least during the school year (away from MOP).