Number-haters anonymous

Hi, my name is Tara, and I’m not good at numbers.

A struggle from the start

Numbers have always felt like another language. A language that somehow I wasn’t programmed with. I definitely missed the genes from my mum, whose favourite subject at school was calculus and whose first degree was Medicine, and my sister, who is an accountant. They love numbers. My sister collects calculators and has an ‘I love maths’ t-shirt. Really.

I love maths a whole lot less. Working on a spreadsheet has always had the magical effect of making everything else on my to-do list suddenly seem in need of my urgent attention.

One of the reasons I signed up for the MBA was to once and for all silence the voice that’s always told me that numbers just aren’t my thing. Surely these are just self-imposed limits, right? Anyone can learn anything, if they put the effort in. And if an MBA is all about challenging yourself, then I was up for it.

So imagine my delight to discover that our very first class would be nothing other than financial accounting.

I did the reading. I did the pre-prep online Harvard maths course. I prepared myself mentally for the onslaught that was to come. I was ready. Bring it.  And Cass brought it. Seventeen straight weeks of it. Accounting, followed up with financial markets and instruments and business analytics as the chaser.

Slightly more than I bargained for. I was struggling.

There’s nothing quite like that feeling when your calculator flashes up the message ‘maths ERROR’ – in capital letters just for extra effect. My calculator’s way of telling me that the formula I entered was apparently an attempt to break the rules of maths.

Or that feeling of sitting in a business analytics tutorial on a Sunday, looking at the first question, and spending the next five minutes wondering if I was the only person who actually has no idea where to start. Then accepting defeat and asking the lecturer to re-explain the concept he spent two hours describing in the lecture three days ago.

It felt uncomfortable. It felt disheartening. It felt hard.

Finding a way

Why couldn’t I remember how to calculate net present value, or explain the function of a yield curve, or find the z score without looking at the formula?  But I told myself the only way was forward – kind of like swallowing cough medicine. Best to get it over and done with as quickly as possible, equipped with the knowledge that there must have been many a brave number-hater who has gone before me.

So I soldiered on. But that approach just made business analytics taste like cough medicine. So I switched tactics.  I hunted out the maths lovers I know. I asked them why they loved it. I absorbed as much of their enthusiasm through osmosis as possible.

Then I went back to it, and this time framed it as a chance to discover why there are indeed maths fans out there everywhere. I stopped telling myself I wasn’t good at numbers. And it helped.

Turns out there’s nothing more satisfying than solving an equation right first time. Seeing a question, remembering the rules and applying what you know. The first time I managed it I felt genuinely deserving of a gold star, or at least a ‘you did it!’ message from my calculator.

We laughed when as a joke a classmate wrote ‘well done’ to himself on his worksheet. But actually, self-talk is powerful.  It’s not the topic but what you tell yourself about the topic that matters most.  Well. Who knew this numbers stuff would have an unexpected lesson.

In the end there were actually at least one or two moments when I found it fun. Ok that might be an overstatement. More like, satisfying. Proving to myself that it wasn’t impossible.

My name is Tara, and I can do numbers. I’ll just probably never love them enough to buy an ‘I love maths’ t-shirt.

Tara Anderson
Executive MBA (2019)