I recently attended a personal gathering of relative strangers. We were all friends with the hostess, but didn’t know each other.

During the get-acquainted phase, one woman said that she is a retired pre-algebra teacher. “Oh!” I said. “I loved pre-algebra.”

Of course, I took pre-algebra in the eighth grade, after my mother had just died and I had just started school in a new town where, all of a sudden, my vanilla whiteness made me the minority. Compared to the complexities of my pre-teen-angst-ridden life, math (y = mx+b) was elegantly simple.

I said none of this at the party, and didn’t have time to. Immediately, two other women jumped in with their own stories about how they are *not* good at math, how they never were, how it pained them so in school and how they have passed their non-matheletic abilities onto their children. “I’ve encouraged my son to go into the arts,” one said, laughing. “He’s just like me – not good at math!”

What is it about math that people declare, so avidly, that they aren’t good at it? People don’t say it about other subjects, such as reading, do they? That would be embarrassing: “I’m just not good at reading!” But it is socially acceptable to be lousy at math.

Maybe we should change that. Not judge people – for sure not! – but, we should recognize that math is as important to everyday life as reading.

Perhaps, the more nuanced truth is, an individual does not *like* math, and therefore, does not care to do it or practice it, and is therefore not good at it. Maybe I have some natural ability at math, but more likely, I had no social life as a teen and so I *liked *math in comparison. (I later went on to be a mathelete – boy was I cool, or what?)

What comes first? The liking or the doing or the excelling?

Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, addresses this concept and challenges the whole notion of innate ability. When you get an early start at something, or like it, you want to do it. The more you want to do it, the better you become and the more you like it. (Gladwell even has a chapter on math, and on how Chinese numbers are easier to say and are more intuitive! For the Chinese, the math and language are tied together. Instead of “thirty-seven” for example, they say “three-tens-seven.” Whereas, in English, in the teens, we have say, fourteen (four-ten), and then in higher numbers, we reverse it: twenty-four, rather than four-twenty. Don’t even get me started on “eleven” and “twelve” – what the heck!? No wonder we get confused!)

Another friend of mine recently discovered that he *is good* at math! As a child, his mind would wander and he didn’t pay attention in class. Once, the teacher explained the concepts of “less than” and “greater than” and then set the students about the task of filling in circles with the relevant symbols: ‘>’ and ‘<.’ My friend realized that he had not been paying attention – again! – and he was afraid to tell the teacher. So, he filled in all the symbols at random.

The teacher determined that he just didn’t have a brain for numbers. It was only as an adult that my friend realized that his problem wasn’t his comfort with numbers, it was with his turbo-charged-scattered little boy brain.

As for me, my ability to do simple mental math has intensified as a stock analyst. I work with a calculator by my side, and I travel with it. When I first started in this job, I would feel slow and lost as people bantered about quickly about effective tax rates, and operating margins and tax-adjusted one-time accounting items. “Whoa!” I thought. “Will I ever be this fast?”

More than one year later, I can attest: I’m now pretty fast at these simple calculations and getting faster. Thank goodness, the brain is trainable!

My co-worker and I recently had a similar conversation about whether leadership can be taught. I came up with this analogy: Maybe leadership, or any desirable trait, is like singing. I don’t have the lungs to be an opera singer, but with voice lessons and encouragement, I could solo in the church choir.

What do you think? Thanks for bearing with me this musing. I did not want to come across as arrogant or offensive, but, I’d like to give people more credit.

Maybe you, too, are actually good at math!

SO funny, Andrea! I had always thought this about myself:) I remembered just loving algebra in high school. It made so much sense, whereas geometry was just beyond me, and that’s what totally stuck. I am good at English and suck at math.

Then, while I was back in school this past year during unemployment, I had to take an algebra class in order to take a higher-level Web class. The class I tested into was a part 2 kinda deal, (though you know how math always builds from one level to the next.) I think if I had taken the part 1, I would’ve been fine. But I’d tested out of that, and didn’t want to waste time and, more important, money.

I tried SO hard in the algebra class! I wanted to prove to myself that the preconceptions were just preconceptions, especially seeing as how I have a little girl and don’t want her to go all “Math-is-hard” Barbie on me.

I spent HOURS on that class, worked on it six nights out of seven some weeks, faithfully did every single practice problem because that’s what was advised. I was on the discussion board multiple times a day. It was crazy!!

And when it was all over, I ended up with a B-. It was enough to pass me out of math world … for what I — honestly — hope is forever.

Because … I’m not good at math.

Christina! My first comment! Thank you for your honesty here! 🙂

You crack me up “math-is-hard” Barbie! You have a lucky daughter. 🙂

I should’ve confessed this in my post: But I struggle with spacial reasoning, and that made me have to work harder at geometry. I mean, I will be in the mall, enter the store, and exit the store and go back the way I came and THINK that I am continuing on in the new direction. And, I’m always getting lost in my car. Boo that!

It bothers me when parents say they are not good at Math and pass the attitude on to their children when there is homework to be done. I believe it encourages them to give up. Math is very important to living your best life – understanding the financial implications of many of the biggest decisions you will ever make. As a woman who excelled at Math & science in school, it makes me sad to hear girls say they don’t want to pursue advanced Math classes because they don’t want to be Geeks or Nerds. If a parent has a bias against Math because of their own history, they should keep it to themselves and encourage their kids to get help from their teachers and other students. Many girls have natural ability in Math and are not encouraged to be proud of it. For me, the positive feedback I got in school was a great thing for my self-esteem during the difficult high school years.

@Angie: I’m with you on the parenting thing. And you’re right: positive feedback makes such a difference — I was blessed to be encouraged too!

It’s SO true, Angie! It’s all about parental attitude. It drives me nutso to think a parent would, essentially, tell his or her child that, “Yup, you suck!” Sheesh:)

I did well in math all through school, though the last math class I took was statistics, my first semester in college. (For the record, I got an A.) I think one of the reasons I focused more on language-related subjects is that I liked those teachers better. I did have one excellent math teacher in high school who said something like, “When are we going to use this? That’s a silly question. Learning to think in this way builds new pathways in the brain, which can build your capacity to learn and do all sorts of other things. How about when you have a job and need to fire someone, or need to fix something? No, you won’t have to calculate the cosign, but the fact that your brain learned how to calculate a cosign means it can do the mental gymnastics needed to do those things.

Also, check out this 3-minute TED Talk about how to improve mathematics education in the US. http://www.ted.com/talks/arthur_benjamin_s_formula_for_changing_math_education.html

I live in China, where I have shown that video to lots and lots of students, to give an example of persuasive speaking. They are all adults, and NONE of them say, “I am not good at math.” Before showing the video we quickly review the difference between calculus and statistics, but beyond that the argument is quite clear to them.

I like your blog. I think this is my first comment 🙂

Great post! I love how you tell us a little about your background and show us how that made you into the (smart) person you are!

@Leslie — Thanks for the TED link! I’ll check it out. I’ll add your blog to my RSS! 🙂

@Alexis — Always a little scary to put myself out there. So thanks for the encouragement!

Thanks so much for sharing… I’ve been really (really) good at math my whole, its integral to my career. But many family members and friends have always exclaimed the same thing – “I’m not good at math.” Even worse, challenging them that they might be good at it just made them angry.

Interestingly, because I struggled with reading comprehension as a young child, I was often told “language isn’t your strong suit”. It wasn’t until I went to college( far away from home) that I got my first A on a paper. My confidence grew simply by no longer listening to the naysayers.

Hopefully our cultural disdain for math will subside… I can’t help but think that less math in our society means fewer industrial jobs in the future.

I agree with your last point completely, Andrea. I think there are people who have “natural talents.” For those people, their talents can bloom quickly, exponentially, and comparatively easily. That being said, I believe that everyone is trainable. With enough hard work and dedication, anyone can become a decent marathon runner, or musician, or mathematician. But I guess part of my definition of being “good” at something is having some sort of natural talent for it. I feel like natural talent is the only way that you can distinguish yourself from those around you–from those who are just “decent.”

Particularly in my post-high school years, I began to consider myself “not good at math.” Granted, part of my being “not good” was a dislike. Math has always been frustrating to me because it’s entirely too “black and white” in my experiences. (And you know I’m a “gray area” kind of girl.) Even though I always knew the process of getting to the correct answer, I would inevitably punch in a wrong number somewhere. Well, 12 steps later, I would find out that my answer was wrong based on the fact that I punched in a wrong number in step 1. WRONG?!? Really??? Would you really call that WRONG?!?! Well…my teachers did.

But my other reason for thinking I’m “not good” is the fact that I don’t have a “natural talent” for it. Sure, I always got As in my classes(mainly because I’m a great memorizer). But I’ve also always been veeeeeeeery slooooooooow at it, and I have no natural ability to do calculations in my head, and I unintentionally mess up a lot. Could I become faster or slightly more efficient? Sure!…with enough practice. But in the end, that person who is a natural whiz at numbers will probably be faster, and he will probably learn new math processes quicker, and math will probably always be easier for him.

I guess I could call myself “decent” at math. But then how could I explain the fact that I can’t even count tallies correctly on the first trial?! Ah well, at least I’m “good” at a lot of other things.

This came up in a discussion after seeing “QED” a play about Richard Feynman (@ Northwestern http://youtu.be/woHRJAWAXFA http://etopia.northwestern.edu) – we were talking about physics but you could easily substitute math. The topic was whether Feynman was born w/one-of-a-kind talent – or whether Peter Orszag is right http://nyti.ms/a8FriZ (“purposeful practice is the key to high performance…top performers in complex fields like..math..become that way through repeated and focused practice that builds their skills until their performance seems almost super-human — rather than being born with highly exceptional skill” – which is very similar to Gladwell’s thesis). Feynman, as it turns out, thinks the latter http://goo.gl/VqwZ Personally, I became good at math in h.s. & econ in college – but only by focused work w/tutors, so I can certainly relate to your friend.

@Joe – Naysayers suck. 🙂

@Heather – You were in math league with me!

@HMF – You come up with the best links. Thanks! 🙂