Obama, during his presidency, regularly returned to the recondite word “calculus” to describe certain political developments. He said it often enough I doubt he meant the limits and differentiation and integration of functions of one or more variables. Perhaps, from a high-level view, he did meant it—he would allude to the potential outcome of events given one variable has a direct or indirect relation to another. Nonetheless, I always thought it was a type of misuse if only because it failed to explain why, exactly, actors needed to “change their calculus” about a situation.
I was always branded as bad at mathematics. It be so prevalent that, indeed, I began to believe I was actually bad at math. Math did prove a struggle. I leaned toward less concrete theory—I would rather read Euclid than apply his theorems.
But I learned I’m not nearly at bad at math as I thought. All it took was effort. When I was accepted to an MBA program, I was required to take Business Calculus. I knew enough to know I was fully unprepared for it, so, first, I enrolled in College Algebra. And this was no easy feat. I had to do all the homework to pass the exams. I did. Swimmingly. I just had to work harder.
I’ve never had too hard of a time with Shakespeare. I learned I could read a Shakespeare play in roughly four hours. (This is why I’ve avoided golf: I can read Hamlet in the same amount of time I can play 18 holes.) If I can dedicate four hours to Shakespeare, I can dedicate four hours for Algebra.
Next came calculus. This was no easy task, but I took it on. After the first few classes—these were night classes on the west side of town, Monday through Thursday, three hours per night—I realized I was in trouble. To get help, I enrolled in a Coursera calculus class to supplement my actual class work. From this I was able to rewind lectures and watch them time and again. This, along with in-class instruction, helped me earn a “B+”. On the final, I answered a calculus question by writing an essay about how the Declaration of Independence was Thomas Jefferson’s attempt to find Euclidean axioms in nineteenth century politics. (I alluded to holding truths as “self-evident” as taking geometric principles and applying them to the rights of man. I stole this from Bertrand Russell.) I’m unsure what my answer scored, but it had to carry some weight for me to earn a “B” for the class.
All this leads to a dream I had last night. I’ve had some form of this dream several times. The situations change, but the premise remains the same. I’m all set to graduate, but unbeknownst to others, I had been skipping math class. Here were all these grades for the semester pilled up—”A’s” and “A-’s”—but there was a big blank hole for math. I had to calculate the tests I’d taken plus the homework scores to see if I could eek out enough points to pass. And, usually, the teacher for the class is my high school Algebra teacher. The dream feels so real—the panic, the fear—all of it. Anyway, I had this dream last night and a few times this morning I’ve had to stop to think, hard, about whether I actually passed the math classes necessary to earn my degrees.
I Googled this topic and was led to a recent Washington Post article. The journalist asked several psychologists what they thought about the dream, and the general consensus related to high-achieving people who had some sort of past failure they’re afraid of repeating. This is fascinating! I wonder why I subconsciously worry about mistakes? The mistakes I’ve made have made me the person I am today. Almost every success I’ve achieved was predicated by a mistake. So, as I’m sure you’ve experienced, mistakes eventually lead to successes.