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Math is Underrated

How math can propel action and make you a better thinker.

Math is underrated. Because of its analytical nature, we tend to perceive math as a nuisance. As a student, you might have demanded math to be more practical. Some students feel there’s little real-world applications of the math they’ve learned. On the other hand, teachers explain that math helps you become a better problem solver. But math goes beyond problem solving.

Math and thinking have a lot in common. Early, we begin with arithmetic—which is really just operations with numbers. Eventually, we get to algebra and the use of variables. At this point, a lot of us get intimidated because it’s hard to relate to x’s or y‘s. However, what often does not get reinforced enough in class is that in life there are many variables and you have the power to experiment to see which ones produce the most benefits for you over time.

Let’s look at how math can benefit the way you think and how you take action:

A dot: (x,y)

Imagine a chart (or system of coordinates) with a horizontal line, the x-axis and a vertical line, the y-axis. In the cross-like chart, the first thing you can “plot” is a dot. You can locate a dot with an x and a y value, like (1,1).

A dot is important. Every time you take action is yet another dot you get to mark on your life’s chart, like a seamless pixel. Thinking in terms of dots means you make it a point to focus on what’s important (a goal, the big picture). When facing a challenge, just take action. Set another dot. Each step you take towards your goals is one more dot. But you know eventually pixels make up images. The more dots, the more clarity you cultivate, and the more proficient you become.

A line: y = mx+b

You can also plot a line. Imagine a line as an infinite number of dots that are true for a given equation. Like x=1. Or y=x.

Thinking linearly about change helps us understand some of the relationships between causes and effects. Although most anything is non-linear, lines can help you clarify where you are today and where you want to be tomorrow. Lines are direction, like the geographic coordinate system of latitude and longitude. Get unstuck, find your North, and take action!

A quadratic equation: y = x^2

Picture the curve that results when you trace a baseball after it’s hit. The U-shaped curves are called parabolas.

In Spanish, there is no spelling difference between parabola (math) and parable (literature). They are both parábolas. And it makes sense. Parables teach lessons that follow an U-shaped form. There is a challenge, effort, and a resolution. Quadratic equations remind you that you will encounter difficulties, but you can overcome them if you persevere, learn from your experiences, and try again.

The power law

Vilfredo Pareto was an Italian engineer that discovered “the power law”, more commonly known today as the Pareto distribution. This distribution explains the 80/20 rule which says that 80% of your problems come from 20% of the sources. And this rule applies to about everything! For example, 80% our your sales come from 20% of your customers. Or, 80% of your classroom problems come from 20% of your students. Or 20% of the Insightful Bean articles attract 80% of the viewers.

More interesting is the fact that you can apply the 80/20 rule to itself. What is 80% of the 80% and 20% of the 20%? The answer is a 1/50 rule: 1% of your effort is responsible for about 50% of your results! Math is underrated because from it, you can learn that you can identify the actions that you can take today to produce 50% of your results!

So when you find yourself firefighting, take a moment and recognize which actions will give you the most results. Just like a dot, there are times you need to see the big picture and just take more action. Like a line, you may benefit to think in terms of trends and direction. Like the U-shaped parabola, you’ll recognize that persistence leads to a happy story! And like the power law, you can find your points of leverage to maximize your actions!

Juan F. Diaz

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