Late to the Party

On math and science & how they can help you (no, really)

I was really late to the party in getting my head around math and science. Like… a couple of decades late.

Sure, I did a good enough job of learning how to answer questions related to the subjects to make it out of school, but that’s only part of the story. Having a good grasp of what these disciplines are and why they matter — their essence — is a whole other thing, and only recently did that part smack me in the face.

Let’s take math, for starters: numbers, variables, operators, expressions and that all-powerful concept of equivalence... two plus two equals four. How do we know? How can we know? Well, math says that we can prove or derive things like this in the abstract — with logic. We never have to actually round up a bunch of apples or oranges in order to figure out how their quantities behave. So…

Mathematics is about building knowledge through reason. It shows us that you can learn things just by thinking through them.

The fact that that’s possible is pretty wild, when you think about it. We’re not just talking about guessing. This is about it being possible to sit down for five minutes and genuinely know more, honest to goodness, by the time you stand up. Amazing and powerful.

Science is no less powerful but takes the opposite approach. All the fuss in grade school about this ‘scientific method’ thing turns out to have been for good reason. Why? Because there’s a whole bunch of stuff where our mathemagic trick — learning just by thinking — doesn’t really work. Where knowing things takes more than that.

Thinking is still useful in those cases, but only to get you to the start line — to a guess (aka a ‘hypothesis’) as to how something works. In order to go further, you need to do things that allow you to test that guess and draw conclusions accordingly. Design an experiment, watch what happens, and your story either does or doesn’t check out (some restrictions apply). So…

Science is about building knowledge through observation. It tells us that — hey — it’s okay if you’re not able to figure everything out in your head.

That’s both comforting and game-changing. It means that to figure out what works, often you can just make an educated guess and give it a whirl. It’ll either go like you thought it would or you get to move on to the next experiment. Either way, you’ve learned something. And unless the stakes are so high that you can’t afford a mistake, this is a powerful tool to have in the ol’ life toolbelt.

So what does this mean, other than that you now have the perfect conversation-starter next time you’re in the market for a wedgie?

Here’s the cool part: you can apply this framework — “math vs science” — in steering your life in whatever productive direction you’re headed.

“Math vs science” points out that there’s a time for thinking and a time for doing. Reminding yourself of this might help you recognize which of the two tools you need in a given moment, or when you’re using the wrong one.

Ever find yourself sinking a whole bunch of time and energy into thinking about something that you’ll “eventually” put into practice? Exercise or diet regimens that you’ll start when you’re done researching the alternatives… that guitar you’ll pick up once you find the right online course... that side project you’ll start working on once you’ve had a chance to plan it out properly... 

There comes a point where you’re better off to stop thinking and just get started. Where more planning or research won’t make a difference — you’ll learn more on the fly, by trial/error. What you need most is action. Your friend Science is eager to help.

On the flip side, ever feel like you’re chasing your own tail? Running around with your hair on fire, yet have nothing to show for it? Or trying that thing over and over — that exercise routine, that business venture, that on-the-job process — with poor results? Lots of motion, little progress.

In that case, the best thing might be to slow down and be a little more thoughtful about what you’re doing. What’s causing you to spin your tires? Is there some root problem you’re not addressing? Are you working on the wrong thing? Or with the wrong people? If yes, more effort ain’t gonna fix it. You need a bit of thinking to inform your next move. Your pal Math can be your spiritual guide.

The individual’s dilemmas have group equivalents: you might find yourself in a debate with someone about what you each think will work best, and — guess what? — you might both have valid guesses. Your lightbulb moment comes when you realize that more debate isn’t going to solve anything. It’s time to act — to somehow put your guesses into motion and see what happens. 

Or, you and your team might be so wrapped up in “this is the way we do things” that you’ve forgotten to stop and question that premise. Your problem may not be that you’ve executed poorly; you might have just had a bad game plan to begin with. Happens all the time.

To think or to act… the choice pops up all over the place. How do you make the right choice, or even notice that you have one? I’m not sure there’s an easy answer. But just recognizing the difference between math and science is a good start, I think.

After that — give it some thought, try stuff out. See what you learn.