struggling with a problem or decision? three simple ways math can help. yes, math!

yay statisticsI hate math. Always have, always will. I will never get fractions and don’t want to. I can calculate tips in my head and balance my budget, and that’s as far as it goes. But back in the day, as a liberal arts undergraduate major at Purdue University, I had to take two math classes. I chose computer programming and a class I’d never heard of before, statistics. Surprisingly, I adored statistics and aced the class. And while I still hate math, I have found statistics to be one of the most important classes I have ever taken – and one that has had a profound impact on the way I make decisions in my life.

Statistics defined:

“The science that deals with the collection, classification, analysis, and interpretation of numerical facts or data, and that, by use of mathematical theories of probability, imposes order and regularity on aggregates of more or less disparate elements.”

While I hate math, I do like order and regularity, especially in my life. Except that life is chaotic and unpredictable, full of “more or less disparate elements” that we have to deal with and manage every day. Making decisions about all of those disparate elements is made more difficult by the emotions that go with it. That’s why I’ve discovered that employing the art of statistics (in my humble opinion, art and science are inexplicably intertwined) can help with everything from making difficult decisions to making true changes in life. Math takes the emotion out of the equation – leaving you with data to interpret and analyze. It gives you a framework for the emotions instead of letting the emotions take control. Translated…do the math first and save the emotions for the end.

Disclaimer: clearly I am not a mathematician. Or a life coach (although I could play one on TV!). These are just my observations and synthesized conclusions, shared in case it would help someone else. So without further ado, here are three simple ways to use the art and science of statistics to help make a tough decision or challenge a bit easier to sort through:

  1. Gather the Data: Think about an area of your life that you are struggling with or a problem that you want to solve – it may be a challenging friend or family member; a situation at work; continually choosing the wrong partner or job; a parenting issue. Whatever. Take a deep breath and set your emotions about it to the side for the moment. Now think across your entire life. Have you experienced this situation before? When? With who? What was the context? Write it all down as a list – science shows that things ‘stick’ better when you write them down by hand. You may need to do some research. Ask questions of others or yourself. Google stuff. Read books. Talk to a therapist. Bounce ideas around with a friend. Remember, this isn’t the time to analyze or judge – you are simply gathering data points. Think of this as the research phase.
  2. Connect the Dots: Look at your list. What patterns do you see? Try to take the emotion out of it and simply look for the patterns or common elements across each situation. Do you find yourself constantly challenged by negative people? Do the problems in your life typically occur only at certain times, with certain people, under certain conditions? Have you invited drama into your life by trusting the wrong people or trusting too soon? Is there an underlying need that you have that is driving  you to continually make the wrong choices? Or perhaps there is a certain type of person who brings out the worst in you but you don’t know why. Be honest with yourself, but please be kind as well. Data is tough to face but it is just data – facts. Facts don’t have feelings or make judgments. One lovely part of math. 🙂 Think of this as theaha phase.
  3. Analyze the results: Now that you have gathered your data and identified the patterns, it’s time to analyze it. What conclusions can you draw? What can change, may someday change, will never change? What is fixed and what is fluid? Most importantly, what can you do differently to change the outcome? Albert Einstein said it best: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” But if you are struggling with trying to tell whether a person or situation is what it is, there is always the duck test: “If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, quacks like a duck, then it is probably a duck.” Think of this as the “oh crap” phase. Because you may see some things you really don’t like or want to deal with. Take a deep breath and remember: it’s just data. You don’t have to do anything with it. It’s okay to just sit with it for a while.

At the end of this process, when you have thoroughly done your research, connected the dots, and analyzed the data – give it all a good think and explore your emotions again. Then trust your instincts and go from there. See what happens.

Let’s be honest: we all know life is hard and there are never “three simple ways” to change that, especially with emotionally charged situations. But it never hurts to take a step back, set your emotions on auto pilot for a bit, and take a look at things through an objective – even, perhaps, a mathematical – lens. I kind of feel like saying “May the force be with you” right now. Being the geek that I am, I will say instead – may the data be with you. 🙂


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