Stop bragging about how bad at math you are

Don’t get me wrong: I understand that everyone has different abilities and not everyone can be a math genius or even particularly good at math. It’s fine if math isn’t your strong subject.

The thing that bothers me is that a lot of people seem to use it as sort of a reverse bragging, like, “I’m too cool to be good at math. Math is for socially incompetent nerds.” It’s one of the few subjects where people seem to be proud of their ineptitude.

My dad used to teach community college courses with titles like “Introduction to Data Processing” back when that was a thing in the 1980s (I swear this is going somewhere relevant). A colleague of his was working on her Ph.D. in education, and her dissertation topic involved studying why some students seemed to have an easier time adjusting to working with computers than others did.

Her guess was that people who struggled to adapt to using computers lacked confidence in their math skills. To test this theory, she gave out tests of basic academic skills to several classes like hers and my dad’s. The students’ performance on these tests would then be compared with their performance in the class at the end of the semester.

It turns out my dad’s colleague got a bit of a surprise. It was true that students who struggled in class tended to lack confidence in their math skills. However, the problem ran deeper than that.

The real problem with the students who struggled? They didn’t read well.

In most circles, it is not socially acceptable for an adult to admit to being a poor reader. But even otherwise highly educated people will often shrug off their difficulties with math.

Even more importantly, I’d argue that the two abilities are related. Most people, myself included, complained about having to do word problems in math when we were kids. However, that’s exactly what problem-solving is like in the real world. You might be missing important information on one hand and have copious amounts of information that isn’t relevant to the problem on the other hand.

I’ll write more about this another time, but plugging in numbers and operators is the least interesting part of math. Unfortunately, that’s what many math courses tend to emphasize. The more interesting parts of math lie in being able to extract meaning from your environment and apply known rules to get new information. You have to know which methods to apply to which situations.

I understand that not everyone will feel the same way as I do about this. All I ask is that you don’t show pride in your inability to do basic arithmetic. I don’t think that’s unreasonable.

In fact, I’ll close with something you’ll find useful if you don’t already know how to do this: figuring out the tip in a restaurant. It’s easy to figure out 20% of anything, and a server’s life is already difficult enough, so they get a 20% tip in my example.

If you break it down, 20% is just 2 * 10%. And figuring 10% of any number is easy: you just move the decimal point one place to the left. So if the check is $25.00, 10% of that is $2.50. Take that figure, double it, and boom! You’ve got your 20%. Now you know how to calculate 20% of anything. That wasn’t so hard, was it?

Does this post give you a different way to think about math? Do you have any good or bad stories about your math education experience? Drop them in the comments!