Math, Work Hours, Failure, and Engagement

Yesterday, Lisa and several other Facebook friends of mine linked to this very interesting article, the title of which suggests that it’s about math, and the content of which gets clouded by its use of math as its front-and-center example.

I read it yesterday, and said that I had to think about it more before I decided what it meant. Lisa said it meant the US has a math phobia. I don’t know that I agree or disagree that the US has such a phobia or not, but after letting the article settle a bit, I can definitely say that the article isn’t about math at all.

As I wrote on Lisa’s page this morning:

Math is just the maguffin here. The article is about persistence and resilience, the ability to deal with failure across the board. Math is just the fodder being used to explore the topic. They cold have written the same article about, for example, writing. A lot of people absolutely hate the actual act of writing. Or reading. Or fixing roofs. Or …

I think the article is about the propensity of people who don’t like something, or who fail at something (hence feel like a failure?) to give up right away and then use the argument of “I’m just not a X type of person” to justify that they quit. So at it’s root, the story is about dealing with adversity.

I think this is intersting.

Lisa and I are both science/math kind of people.

Lisa holds a degree in mathematics, and she finds intrinsic value in math itself. I am an engineer by degree, meaning I find value in its utility that goes considerably beyond the ability to balance a checkbook. This article is perfectly written to grab our attention and make us think things like “kids should just be told to work harder (i.e spend more hours)” at math–which seems to be the primary recommendation the article has pertaining to the problem.

Actually, the article provides five things to think about, but only two of them are directly actionable, and those are the two that say “force kids to work more hours.”

However, I think the other three are more important.


Brief segue: I recently briefed some managers on some extensive work I’ve been doing about productivity and quality as it pertains to hours worked by employees. It’s a fascinating field, really. And at the end of the day I’ll boil my feelings down to the idea that, assuming prudent care of basic health, the only thing that really matters is what kind of energy a person can bring to their work. There are things I can spend 70 hours a week on and still be really excited about, for example. And there are things I can’t.

The other thing that comes to play is that I am different from you, and you are different from me. I may well be perfectly capable of spending 70 hours a week doing something you love, but if I don’t love it, I’m not going to enjoy doing it. And if I don’t enjoy doing it, I’ll probably never become as good as you are. I will also probably not keep doing it 70 hours a week. And if you force me to do it 70 hours a week I will soon grow to despise it.

The main message I’m trying to convey in these talks is that I think the challenge for leaders is to find ways to keep people at the state of energy where they are at their most effective, and will keep them at that level over the very long haul of months and years rather than days and weeks. What makes this so hard is that all people draw energy from different places, so cookie cutter approaches are doomed to some degree of failure. The optimal answer is for leaders to be highly sensitive to people and their needs of the moment, and to make it safe for people to manage that for themselves.

As I finished briefing results, one of the managers looked at me and said, “Wow. This is really complex.”

And I agree with him. When you get into the details it’s a very hard task to be a leader with that mandate. But on another level I completely disagree. It’s actually far more simple than anyone wants to hear. The answer is that in order to make things better, we need to be able to actually get inside a different person’s point of view, and help them deal with whatever barrier they are facing at that moment. That’s it.

See? Simple.



Leaders don’t really like this message. This role that I speak of is a weird mix of teacher, RA, and Guidance Counselor. Leaders in Corporate America like to do things. They like to get things done. The do not generally like to “babysit,” which is a not-uncommon description for the type of behavior a leader can find very effective when well done.

They want energetic people, of course, but they want energetic people who don’t bother them with mundane issues and load them the extra work that the leader perceives is associated with keeping close touch with those employees.


Anyway, I think item three on the article’s list is the important one to focus on. It is the one that take nuance from parents and teachers and friends and whatnot.

3. “[The inhabitants of Japan and Korea] do not need to read this book to find out that intelligence and intellectual accomplishment are highly malleable.

And I think #4 and #5 are well intended, and important to talk about, also.

4. “When they do badly at something, [Japanese, Koreans, etc.] respond by working harder at it.”
5. “Persistence in the face of failure is very much part of the Asian tradition of self-improvement. And [people in those countries] are accustomed to criticism in the service of self-improvement in situations where Westerners avoid it or resent it.”

But I also think that it’s important to look at the whole persistence thing carefully. Freakonomics once did an interesting bit that discussed how good arguments can be made that it is in people’s best interest to quit things often until they find their passion.

Which I think is the key, here.

People need to be free to find their passion, and supported enough that they don’t quit on life. Five hours of homework a night will not instill passion in a kid. Unless, of course, that kid has a certain passion for homework (those kids exist, after all … I married one [grin] ). And driving all students to spend buckets of time learning math deeply may, or may not, solve this problem as well as a more flexible, Montessori-like whole-life classroom solution.

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