Learning to Accept You’re Not Bad at Math

Goodwill Hunting

I think, like a lot of people, I eventually decided I was bad at math.

Maybe it was because I tend to transpose numbers in my head, or maybe it was the middling grades I got as an undergrad in statistics, but to me, feeling became fact, and I moved on. It’s amazing how many stories we tell ourselves about ourselves that are total lies.

Things started to change for me when I taught myself basic programming skills in my early 20s. I’d tell people that I could “literally feel my mind expanding” as I learned how to wield functions and arrays, and I began to feel confident that there was a purely logical part of my mind that I was working like a muscle. One of the first things I built was a timeline app in Flash, and in it I had to arrange items on a line proportional to their place in time, and display them in a way where they wouldn’t collide with the edges of the frame. This wasn’t calculus, but it was a lot of logic and math.

Sooner or later I moved from interactive production to product work, where all of a sudden I needed to have a very good handle on more math, this time in data analytics. I became deeply intimate with Google Analytics and had a lot of fun looking at sales funnels, building complicated user segments, performing analysis over time with those segments and explaining why the time spent metric was not worth one’s time. I was using data to gather insights, make predictions and advance opinions. It was great. I still couldn’t do calculus, but I was using math in my work and enjoying it.

Then I decided to apply for an MBA and was once again confronted with math. But this time it was on a different order. In the GMAT, there is not enough time for a person reasonably good at math to complete the math section in time, much less enough time for someone bad at math. I took an expensive Princeton Review course, studied for a few months and took the test. It turns out, I was bad at math after all. I even had quantifiable proof! I dropped the entire idea of business school.

Months passed, and frustration began to mount. It wasn’t so much that I had done badly, but that I had given up and accepted it. At some point I reached rock bottom and quickly bought every single GMAT math book that was available. I really bought all of them. Then I booked another test date.

I promised myself that I’d spend two hours a day on GMAT math for the three months leading up to my test, and I did. In those months, I didn’t suddenly discover that I was good at math, but I did find that if I just spent enough time focused on learning how to solve the problems, it would start to make sense. I also ended up re-learning some actual calculus. I took the test and got a good enough score that I got into both USC and UCLA Anderson.

Now that I’m at Anderson, I’m surrounded by some exceptionally smart people, and the feeling that I’m not good at math still creeps up on me sometimes. But by this point I know that the gulf between that lie and reality is filled with nothing more than a little confidence and a bit of effort.

This post was heavily inspired by this piece by Matt Waite that I read years ago and found really inspiring. If you relate to any of this, read it!