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A Novelist in Business School: Math

A Novelist in Business School: Math

“A Novelist In Business School”, is a series about putting my literary arts brain through formal management training.

I hate math. I always have. In high school I realized during a math class that I had enough math credits to graduate, so I stood up, walked out of the class and dropped it on the spot.

Somehow I then made it through an entire undergraduate degree in information technology without taking another class that involved serious quantitative work. I even got a high enough math score on the GRE to avoid taking basic undergrad math.

All of which changed when I applied for grad school. My standardized test scores demonstrated quite clearly that while I have better than average communication skills my quantitative reasoning skills are less impressive. Like, 45 percentile less impressive.

When I applied for the MBA program I’m currently in we had a long talk about that. They wondered how I thought I would get through an MBA and I wondered why they thought it was so important. After all, I’m here to manage people, and I’ll hire accountants, right? That’s how it works, right?

Maybe. But MBA degrees are famous for wanting you to know things, which means being able to keep an eye on your accountants. So now, some two decades after I walked out of a math class, I’m stuck in not one but two math classes I can’t walk out of.

How I’m handling it

First off, I’m not going to graduate with a 4.0. I’m still not great at this and I’ve been doing a lot of catch up work to get to where I’m even okay with it. So don’t take this is a guide to perfect grades. But here’s what I’m doing to make my narrative focused brain accept mathematics.

Work with someone else

I’m incredibly lucky; one of my co-workers is also in my MBA program. While we were nodding acquaintances before I started the program we’ve become good friends since then. We work on a lot of the homework together, and use one another as sounding boards when we’re having problems with various topics. The psychological power of having someone else who is going through what you are going through is immense.

Take notes. Lots of notes

I can read things and think, “okay, got it, that makes sense,” and move on. Which works until I have to actually use anything I read. Then it absolutely doesn’t. Like, say, when I take a test. So I’m taking copious notes on everything I read or listen to.

I’ve gone through a number of note taking programs, trying to find one that manages my notes, gives me the flexibility to insert images and graphs and highlights as needed. I’ve gone through Evernote, OneNote, Bear, Ulysses, and a few others, before settling on the dumb-stupid version:

Markdown files in directories.

I have been using Markdown in various flavors for years, and MultiMarkdown is my favorite variant. Using MultiMarkdown to take notes means I can take notes in vim or MultiMarkdown Composer or any of a number of other Markdown-friendly apps, depending on which computer I happen to be sitting at. I used Marked to create a formatted preview of my notes more or less in real time, and when I need to share notes with someone else I can send them pretty much any file format that works for them. Also, Markdown is much less prone to tinkering. I can’t waste time playing with fonts and layouts, two things I’m often guilty of wasting a lot of time on.

Learn equations, dang it.

In my daytime job I’m a programmer, which means, according to Larry Wall, that I’m productively lazy. I look for short cuts, ways to make the computer do all the work for me. And MBA-type math is easy to push off to the manager’s best friend, the spreadsheet. Microsoft has done a good job turning Excel into the world’s financial calculator. So as a programmer it’s tempting to just figure out what formula I need in Excel to answer any problem and just plug numbers in there.

Which works until it doesn’t. The computer can only do so much. I need to give it good information to get good information back. So in my note taking, I’ve forced myself to not only look at the equations (I’ve spent my life glossing over anything that looks like math) but figure out how to type them into my notes. I take notes in MultiMarkdown, which uses the MathJax language (which is a subset of LaTeX… to lay out mathematical equations. So I’ve forced myself to learn MathJax, and I make sure that I type every equation into my notes so that it looks the same as the ones in the books or lectures.

Why? Because I have to spend time looking at every term in the equation, and then I identify them in the text of my notes. I have to parse the equations make sense of them, look at them closely over and over to make sure they match… in short, I have to think about them. And that has gone a long way towards getting them crammed into my brain, will I or nil I.

Same time every day

I work on homework every day from roughly 8:00pm to roughly midnight. Some nights I can feel like I’m done around 10:00 or 11:00. Some nights it takes me until 1:00am to get done. But every night I know I’ll be sitting down and focusing, and I am getting to the point where I can feel my mind going into “MBA mode” around 7:45. Habit is a useful thing if you train it right.