When Math is Mushy and Soft in Real Life

Math handed me undiluted friendship; boring ways to make money and more. Pristine and murky are passé for Math.

Karthik Rajan
Mar 30, 2018 · 7 min read

Full disclosure: I don’t have a Ph. D.

Math and Friendship

Once upon a time, I had the privilege of sitting across a gentleman with a freshly minted Ph. D.

That was my first opportunity to lead a team. I was doing interviews to make my first hire. It became crystal clear that I was sitting across a genius. I fell for his brain powers. Wanted to hire him, my boss also interviewed him. Cautioned me about his lightness on communication skills and yet encouraged me to make my own hiring decision.

I hired the physicist with the beautiful mind. We both understood English. The one challenge, he was picking up the language to speak.

As we spent time working together, one day, we naturally went to the whiteboard. He wrote and I interpreted. We nodded in agreement. We had cracked the code on how to communicate and collaborate.

If you zoomed back on the whiteboard, it was filled with equations — precise in the information, elegant in their compactness and above all a mutual handshake of thoughts.

I had a moment of epiphany.

Some call math murky, some call it abstract. From that day, I realized it was about “saying a lot while speaking very little”- a lazy way of writing a lot in short hand.

Math was a way of communication — poetry of its own.

Now, both of us have our shreds of white hair, both of us are still in touch. Both of us exchange notes about our kids — in English.

And our bonds of friendship were created over layers of communication on a whiteboard.

Math and a dog’s tail

When I was young I learned: You cannot straighten a dog’s tail.

Somewhere along the way, I believed I could win over people to my point of view with words and actions. The shape of the dog’s tail [people’s behavior in the normal course of the day] is not that important.

As I got older, my aha was: There is immense value in studying the dog’s tail. You may not be able to straighten it forever. However, the study of tails opens our eyes on what people are comfortable with — in their natural state. An observation I found worth the weight in gold in the world of influence without authority.

A simple interview question helped me understand them better.

I asked them to add two numbers say 1420 and 1273. I was not interested in the answer. I just watched how they approached it.

If they told me it is around 2600 or 2700 — that told me their comfort with ambiguity and significance. They are natural strategist. Top down works for them.

If they used the pen in front of them and added the numbers from right to left and wrote 3, then 9, then 6 and then 2 to get 2693 — I knew they were methodical in getting things done. You can count on them to be rigorous. Precise is a word they cherish.

If they first tell me the rough numbers and then follow through with pen and paper, I never forget them.

They are both bottom-up and top-down. They are like hour glass, rare in this world of digital clocks. In real world, like the hour glass, the bottleneck is in the middle — where the strategy in the sky meets the tactics in the ground.

One other thing, if they share that math is not their comfort wheelhouse; I do not bring this question up. The unspoken purpose of life is to celebrate people’s strength not harp on discomfort.

Math and a picture frame

Frames to pictures are like decorations to the human body. You do not miss them. But if you find them, you can appreciate them. Math can be a frame to our thinking. Here is my experience.

I like to read books. Head of sales, at a company I used to work, shared a book with me. I read it that weekend- SPIN Selling by Neil Rackham.

SPIN stands for:

A math optimization problem has almost the same framework.

It is very similar except that the constraints come in at the end. In other words, item 2 and 4 switched places — SNIP rather than SPIN.

Great business thrive when the minds meet and think in other person’s shoes.

If a mathematician/ scientist/ technical person sits across you, you may want to talk about the objective first before constraints. If you have a sales person across you, they do care to hear about the constraints before the objective.

Small communications flip, priceless grease of connectivity.

Math and boring way to make money

The same head of sales saw something in me and offered me a lifetime opportunity to turnaround Texas sales — to bring it up by 25% .

I turned to this simple math:

$ goal = Number of deals in inventory * conversion rate * annual volume of each deal * term of deal * unit margin

In order to improve the sales bottom line, you can improve any one of the drivers by 25%. I chose to look for ways to increase each by 5%. Change is hard for all of us. Why make it harder by swinging on one for 25%?

For some, my top down approach may sound a good way to approach it. From ground up, this is the boring way.

On the ground, rejection is commonplace- you typically face rejection from 9 out 10 people you meet, give or take. When rejection is commonplace, the antidote is recognition for that one rare win.

In American football, one long run of 100 yards is a touchdown, so is 20 micro passes inching the way through each of 10 yards. The one long run of 100 yards is seared in memory- for the way win happened. For the 9 failed, that one long swing to the dashed line is a sweet memory and recognition. Great conversation material over beverages among contemporaries.

A win is a win is one way to look at it. How you approach the win matters for memory.

A large deal could give one leap jump more than the collection of small deals. I chose the way of small improvements of 5% as it fit my personality better.

I was thrilled when Elon Musk named one of his companies boring company. Clever play of words for a company that bores tunnels. Still, a great name for personal reasons.

Back to making money the boring way, yes we exceeded targets and had quiet fun doing it.

Math and patterns

If you sum up numbers from 1, the answer has a short cut.

1+2+3+4+5 = 15. This is same as half of 5*6

1+2+3+4+5+6+7+8+9+10 = 55. This is same as half of 10*11

Yes, you can a see pattern that it is the ½ of last number times the next number.

When I first saw this, one question sprang to my mind. What would I do with this in real life other than math magic in front of unsuspecting kids?

Erudite scholars can quickly pounce on practical applications. I found something more interesting in the pattern to the answer, than the answer itself.


can be rearranged in the reverse order


Now place them one below the other and add up

11 added 10 times. The answer right in the middle.

When you flip the order and look at things together, you get to a healthy conclusion quickly. Wow. This pattern is a guiding light to navigate the murky world.

I glance the headlines on CNN and then I glance the headlines on FoxNews and I get a good idea on what is really happening in the middle.

And I get back to writing my posts.

Math, real life and choice

For some, math is the pristine Fiji spring water. For some, it is the murky deep ocean with its own flora and fauna.

For me, it is like the beach waters of Hawaii where you have have choices.

You can snorkel and watch the eclectic kaleidoscopes of colors silhouetting the reefs. You can luxuriate on the beach with the breeze caressing your back. You can hop island to island, snap awesome pictures on your cell phone and share it on Instagram. How you experience the waters is your choice.

Math is a mindset, a means to an end. To me — on most days, math is mushy, soft and nice.

Karthik Rajan

You are welcome to sign up for my “connect the dots” short story-letter at this link.


Reimagining the learning and teaching of mathematics

Karthik Rajan

Written by

Stories to fuel your mind. Theme: life’s hidden treasures in plain sight. Goal: Warm tone, solid content, crisp stories. About me: one google search away.



Reimagining the learning and teaching of mathematics

Karthik Rajan

Written by

Stories to fuel your mind. Theme: life’s hidden treasures in plain sight. Goal: Warm tone, solid content, crisp stories. About me: one google search away.



Reimagining the learning and teaching of mathematics

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