I knew this was going to take some doing because my math insecurity, like many people, had been rooted in disheartening childhood and school experiences that resonated into adulthood. I distinctly remember sitting alongside my brother, struggling with my algebra homework, until my exasperated sibling (five years older) flung his hands in the air and shouted, “She’s never going to get this!” My mother made things worse. “Don’t worry,” she said, turning to me. “He’s smart but you’re charming.”
Of course, as most women entrepreneurs have proven, there is nothing contradictory in being charming and smart. But often, what remains is this lingering, self-limiting belief: “I’m not good at math.” We make up stories about ourselves that support this “no-can-do-math” belief. And we steadfastly avoid making math-related decisions, a behavior that continues to reinforce the belief, however unsupported by current experiences.
A few weeks ago, I decided it was finally time for me to peel away this label. So one afternoon I reconnected with an old friend, Anna, a retired math teacher. We had not seen each other for some time, but I told her exactly what was on my mind: I wanted to create a breakthrough in this area. We agreed to meet for dinner that night at a local restaurant and she gave me my first assignment—bring three algebra word problems to solve.
I was still anxious, of course, but I realized that I would be starting in a slightly different place from where I had been. Instead of saying, “I can’t do that,” I was choosing “It’s possible.” That was a small, but important, decision. For all of us, it takes courage to challenge pre-existing decisions about oneself, to let go of self-imposed limitations.
Anna, for her part, began with a statement that told me everything about her capabilities as a teacher—and I didn’t need an evaluation form to measure it. “I stand for the principle that anyone can learn anything,” she said. Then she told me, “Do you realize that math is just another language, a way of speaking?” The words electrified me. “Yes, that’s what I do,” I thought. “I’m a communicator who uses language to solve problems. I can do that.” With one deft move, Anna had put math in a context I could understand.
Next, she instructed me, “Ask questions immediately. The minute you don’t understand something, ask me. Don’t wait and think to yourself, ‘Well, I’ll figure it out later. ‘” Once again, I was stunned by her wisdom. How often do we see people at work or in school reluctant to ask questions, for fear, perhaps, of being humiliated, being judged as “stupid”? How often do we find ourselves in situations where a manager or technical expert is called in to explain an enormously complex problem and they do so just once—as if once should be enough for true comprehension? It reinforced my belief that we need to make our workplaces safe to ask questions. We frequently don’t know how people are hearing what we say and where their own thinking might be stopped up. We have to allow people enough time to ask, “How do you do that again?”
By the end of my dinner with Anna (and after many questions) I was able to solve the three algebra problems I brought her. I was weeping. Finally, I was at peace about something that has been jamming me up since middle school. No high anxiety, just normal problem-solving. As we parted, Anna left me with one last lesson: Keep practicing. “Don’t expect to know it all immediately,” she said. “Go back and ask more questions. Have fun.” And so I have.
By the way, if you’re curious about the three questions I presented to Anna and want to test your own skills, here’s one of them: An administrative assistant orders cell phones for people in her department. Brand A phones cost $89.95 and Brand B phones cost $34.95. If the assistant orders 3 times as many Brand B phones as Brand A phones at a total cost of $584.40, how many of each did she order?
Know the answer? If you want to verify it—or just want to know how to do it, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d be delighted to share my experiences—and hear of the stories of your own math challenges and successes.