I am terrible at math.
Hold on, before you start yelling "yet!' and send me Carol Dwek’s TED Talk
, let me stop you because I just watched it … and I’m really, really bad at math. I am so terrible at math that, when I see numbers, I break out into a cold sweat, my mind goes blank, and I lose my appetite. I would need to study math for somewhere on the order of 20 years straight — no breaks — to begin approaching even the lowest level of comfort.
My distaste is so acute, I fully believe word problems are a crime against words.
My deep aversion to math comes from a deeper aversion to linear thinking, or thinking step-by-logical-step. No one who knows me well would ever describe me as a linear thinker. I much prefer to free-associate. I am a divergent thinker. I enjoy bringing odd things together and smashing them like atoms to produce energy. My favorite type of work is when there’s a problem, no solution, and no rules on how to go about solving that problem — and I’m told the magic word: “go".
So, why on Earth am I taking a financial accounting course right now!?!?
Yes, that’s right. I am in week 3 of 4 of the introduction to financial accounting course on Coursera
. I think if University of Pennsylvania’s Geoffrey T. Boisi Professor, Brian Bushee, who teaches this online gauntlet, ever met me, he’d simply shake his head and point me to the marketing department. Then, the marketing folks would send me to comms, and then I’d run to the theater department … where, let’s just be honest, I belong.
I am, to put it mildly, bombing this course. This course has a “C’s get degrees” policy. In other words, you need a 70% to pass, and I am clawing my way uphill to that marker of mediocrity. At the end of each week, there’s a 10-question quiz. I usually need to take each quiz twice — sometimes three times (the maximum number of times allowed every 8 hours) — before I can get a passing grade. The final exam is a 40-question jungle.
The problem is, the math isn’t complicated (not even for me). It’s the logical progressions that are getting me. For example, if your assets go up, they are entered in the journal as a debit, and if your liabilities go up, they are entered as a credit. Why? Because they exist on opposite sides of the balance sheet equation: assets = liabilities + stockholders’ equity. Then there are the T-charts, the operating statement, adjusting entries …
I can’t believe I just typed that from memory. Sweet mother of depreciation, I hope it’s all right.
My brain wants no part of this information, especially when the numbers start appearing. It is fighting me every step of the way.
“We don’t do this,” it says.
“We don’t think this way,” it cries.
“I thought we agreed,” it howls, "no more math and no more logic! We’re too old for this sh*t!”.
I’ve spent my life running away from math and logic, but the fact remains: if I want to have the flexibility to pursue the random things that interest me without going broke, have any real understanding of my personal finances, or just not feel dumb when talking to people who know this stuff (most of the people I come across day to day), I have to learn this stuff.
So, what do I do when my brain says “no”? '
I suffer through it.
That’s it. There’s no secret sauce. I don’t Jedi mind trick myself into it. I can’t. My brain is too good at playing hide-n-seek with math. I have to hold it down under a spotlight and force it to understand. So, I watch the recorded lectures over and over again until my brain finally starts turning the noise into (albeit weak) signals. I laugh openly at Professor Bushee’s accounting jokes to produce a bit of dopamine and alleviate the tension in my jaw and shoulders. Then I do the problems over and over again until I can do them from memory and I can feel in my bones why the answers are right.
It’s painful work. I can only compare it to climbing up a greased pole. I’m essentially grabbing a bucket of water, dishwashing detergent, and a sponge and cleaning the pole. Then, once I get a foothold at the bottom, I start climbing with the bucket of cleaning fluid and the sponge along for the ride, scrubbing all the way to the top.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go review how to calculate EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization) and wrap my head around why it’s not a good replacement for the cash flow statement when analyzing a company’s performance.
Srub, srcub, scrub...