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!