Battling the Odds (I suck at Math)
“Think of How Smart the Average American is
Now Think Half of ‘em are dumber than that” - George Carlin
OK, I don’t suck at math. I was/am excellent with arithmetic. I memorized the single-digit multiples quickly, and became a menace in the “mad minute” competitions in elementary school math.
I had strong intuitions in geometry and I understood the fundamentals of algebra early in high school.
The last math class I took was junior year of high school, and it was the first D I earned, and one of only two I would earn in my academic career (You saw right through my procrastination Biology of Dinosaurs). I know D’s aren’t the end of the world but they were a scarlet letter to a bookish nerd shooting for academic glory.
Math became a point of anxiety, and after junior year I stopped leveling up in my math education. I realize that the overwhelming masses of Americans have similar stories, and don’t even have the early learning successes to (pointlessly) brag on, so it is mildly disingenuous to say I’m bad at math, but accurate to say I tuned out and shied away from applying that skill set.
Meanwhile, several of my peers continued their studies and struggled through differential equations and problem sets until they earned lettered bachelors and masters in economics, computer science, and finance. Subsequently they would pursue careers in business, technology, and finance. These folks, in my estimation, are good at math.
Comparison being the thief of joy, I developed the idea that I suck at math.
The thing about ideas that are fundamental is, regardless of how true they are, there is a very large degree of self-fulfilling prophecy that kicks into gear. If you think you suck at a subject, you will continue to approach that subject with anxiety, and thus have more difficulty absorbing/retaining that subject, which will further slow your development in that subject. It can be a vicious cycle.
So, fine. I suck at math… BUT, I know that I suck at it.
I sat in on a finance lecture when I was managing programs in executive education, and the finance lecturer said something that resonated with me about investing:
“You probably fit in one of three groups of investors.
Group A is the group that knows they don’t know what they’re doing.
Group B that thinks they know what they’re doing but doesn’t.
And then there’s group C that gets the money from Groups A and B.
NOW, How many of you think you’re in Group C and not Group B?”
- Paraphrasing Prof. Mitch Petersen
Surely, in a room full of high caliber business executives this prompts puffery and showmanship, but the question is rhetorical. The point of the lecture is you can educate yourself all you want on the mechanics and concepts of finance, but you’ll only learn just enough to realize how little you know. (this rings true to my earlier post about “the curse of having only a little talent”)
Group A can lose out on potentially lucrative investment opportunities, but they could luck into them as well. Group A can be exploited, but so can Group B. Group B just doesn’t believe that they could possibly be duped, where A considers it a foregone conclusion.
I really liked the idea that I was a Group A investor. I know that I don't know. I avoid speculative investments. I keep my money in mutual funds and the value of my home. I seek stable investing opportunities.
I never understood people that walked through life pretending that they had everything figured out. Wisdom comes with age obviously... Truth is an awful lot of people are pretending they have everything figured out, and would more readily claim they are in Group C than admitting they are in Group A. THAT’s group B, and it’s enormous.
That said, there are some distinct advantages to being in Group A. Believing in luck for example.
I do like gambling, when I have a few extra dollars. I specifically like Instant Lotto scratch-offs and slot machines. Not only that, but I will sometimes cash in a winning ticket at a different store where I bought it, on some half-conceived rationale that my luck at any discrete store is finite.
Same practice if I hit even a moderate return on a slot machine I will almost immediately move to another machine.
Any reason I gave you would be based on no data whatsoever other than anecdotally, that method has worked for me (although statistically, more often it has not worked…)
While it’s highly disappointing walking away from a gambling experience having lost all your money, that is the default expectation of the experience. To me, it makes the reward of even breaking even so incredibly satisfying as to sustain the habit, and even a modest win is downright euphoric. The hope of the jackpot keeps me going back.
(Good news you guys, gambling isn’t even in one of my top 3 vices, but mostly because I realize gambling is one of those hard addictions that can literally ruin your life, and I approach it with extreme suspicion, largely due to the innate knowledge that the house ALWAYS wins)
But it’s not always fun and games...
Early in our marriage, we struggled through infertility.
We went to an excellent specialist and we went through a series of tests, procedures, and painful hormone injections.
Spoiler alert, we were unsuccessful.
The process was so stressful and painful physically and emotionally, and we were given such a grim prognosis, that we opted to discontinue the IVF process.
In our final consultation, the doctor said we had “maybe 1 in 100” chance of conceiving naturally given our profile.
And listen, I know exactly what that number means. It means “yeah, technically it could happen… I mean Sarah and Abraham right?”
Nevertheless, the 1% chance gave us hope, which would each month be newly dashed by Kelly’s ‘time of the month’.
It’s been a continuing trauma, but one we have both dutifully endured. I mean the reward would be insane (though at this point Kelly being pregnant would be both miraculous and, frankly, super dangerous), but that hope comes with a huge price.
We cannot properly grieve our inability to parent (or the child that almost was).
More recently, the global pandemic greatly exacerbated my statistical anxieties, because it made me realize that basically no one is in Group C.
Early in the spread of the virus, we were all given the same data, but interpreted it in wildly different ways. I took note of the validating and concrete alarm emanating from the “experts” camp. It matched my rudimentary understanding of math. Even a 1% fatality rate in the US would mean 3+ million people dead, and that fact was used in attempts to reassure people that things were OK.
U fuckn wot m8?
The issue is, a 1% fatality rate wasn’t a foregone conclusion, it was the worst-case scenario. It could have been much better. But as anyone who has run a business knows, infrastructure/maintenance is a thankless and sometimes scorned investment. No one wants to pay for the new roof, but definitely no one wants water dripping on their customers… Especially in the publicity and reputation critical spaces of politics, no one gets brownie points for keeping people healthy or keeping roads safe.
Today, “spend less on government” is the GOP’s literal game-plan, never mind the individual leaders invariably own the businesses that would take over the government operations and will have no qualms raising prices as they cement their natural monopolies…. It’s one of the key cognitive dissonances to running government operations like a corporation: lean operations will lead to emaciated societies.
As the GOP’s grip on the Senate and House loosened, and as the new democratic presidential administration kicks into gear, I am noticing a clear difference in how statistics are being discussed.
Instead of Group B folks (politicians) explaining what they heard from Group C folks (scientists), we hear from Group C folks directly in a way that both Group A and B folks can process.
We hear: What Group C knows, why they know it, but most importantly what they don’t know, what we still need to know. This information has always been available, but it’s surfacing now, and being treated seriously at all levels of society.
And so, as this administration begins to do something on a national level about the pandemic (albeit a chaotic and mistake-riddled something, it’s literally fucking something), I am grateful to feel like maybe Group B is holding less sway over decision-making and relying more heavily on those that literally understand the subjects we’re all tackling.
Whatever the numbers mean, the results are tangible. I hugged my mom yesterday for the first time in a year without feeling like I was risking either of our lives, and I will take that math to the bank ANY day....
I will always struggle with numbers. But thanks to living in a society, I don't have to let that struggle consume my life, I can leave it to the experts (and hope they don't exploit my ignorance too much).
Shout out to my Group A heads! Good luck out there!
Native Stranger Productions