Liberated living: believe by numbers

Here’s a formula for you:
1. Things happen.
2. People interpret things that happen.
3. Interpretations become beliefs about what has happened and what will happen.
4. Beliefs become words, which become stories about what has happened and what is possible presently and in the future.
5. Words and stories, when repeated over and over and compared to the words and stories of others, solidify beliefs.
6. More things happen.
And so on.

To illustrate…
In grade school, math was pretty cool.

Was easy. Made me feel smart.

So, the story about math I told myself and others was: “I like math. I can do math!”

Then, got flanked by algebra.

Frustrated the living daylights out of me.

Was difficult. Suddenly, I felt stupid.

My story about math changed to: “I hate math. Math is evil. I can’t do it. Don’t want to do it. Screw math and the book it rode in on.”

After that, even basic math, which I was previously fond of, became an intolerable chore.

And it stayed that way for over ten years.

After going back to school at nearly 30, I took a series of placement exams.

Bombed math, like a boss.

(As in the boss of not passing math)

In college, my first class was MATH 050. That’s like the 3rd sub-basement of college math curriculum.

Was aiming high in college though, so went in with a can-do attitude.

Sure, I was terrified.

But I’d rather have failed giving it my best shot than failed without trying.

I worked hard, like a madman, cracking algebraic codes, like the fate of the world rested in the balance.

When I fell asleep one night and my dreams were fully written in algebraic equations…

That’s when I knew:

I kinda liked math again.

When I passed 050 with flying colors, felt like Rocky after winning a prize fight.

That story of mine about mathematics changed to this:

“For a huge part of my life, I thought I could not do math. Abhorred it! Must have said ‘I suck at math’ to myself and others hundreds of times. But now I know that does not have to be true. Wow… if I went so long believing mathematical prowess was out of my grasp, and that belief ended up lacking inherent validity, what else could I be capable of?”

What a powerful epiphany!

When my story was, “Math is a scary beast and wants to eat me,” I fully believed it. Fervently avoided that beast.

I’d tell others my story, too. Often, their stories matched mine, reinforced mine, even added layers to mine.

Me: “I hate math.”

Someone else: “Oh, me too! I am a writer, so I can’t be good at math too.”

Me: “Hmm, I am also a writer. That explains why I can’t do math!”

Right there, we mutually validated being sucktastic with math.

But now when someone tells me a story about the dread-beast of math, I can share my revised story. Which may or may not have an inspirational or empowering effect.

At very least, my latest story about math challenges those other narratives, if only by redirecting the conversation towards what could be possible rather than reinforcing belief in what is not possible.

I can fully relate to believing that mathematical enjoyment is out of reach. There was a point in time in which it was unlikely that anyone could have changed my mind, no matter how inspiring they spun their story.

I did not have any personal interest in enjoying math, nor did I perceive any particular advantage.

As such, there is no agenda here to help change anyone’s beliefs about their relationship with math.

By all means, keep detesting math. And do it with passion. I’ll watch.

Then again, perhaps you do see an advantage to cutting loose from those beliefs of permanent mathematical ineptitude. But you’re doubtful.

If that’s you, I can say with 98% certainty that there is a special combination of factors, completely unique to you, that can remove the barriers between you and mathematical success.

(That 2% margin for error is due to the likelihood that there are rare exceptions, such as those with certain cognitive conditions and learning impairments. But even in those cases, I am entirely too idealistic to write anyone off. Except 2% of people, I guess.)

Then, of course, there are those of you who have been comfortable with math and enjoyed it forever.

Congratulations. If that is you, just omit the mathematics-related vocabulary from this post and replace it with whatever you find little to no joy in doing.

Knitting. Football. Ballet. Karaoke. Writing. Painting. Whatever.

Surely, you do not naturally enjoy everything (and if you do, tell me more about that so I can learn from your magics).

Now, let’s go back to our formula:

1. Things happen.

In middle school, algebra was challenging and I no longer enjoyed it as I once did.

2. People interpret things that happen.

I interpreted what happened by thinking that I was no good at math, that it was too difficult, and I was stupid.

3. Interpretations become beliefs about what has happened and what will happen.

The belief that formed and solidified that I was not skilled in math; I hated algebra and it hated me right back.

This stretched into the future, because since I believed I could not do it, I went on to gather evidence to that effect. And avoided every opportunity that could have potentially disproven my hypothesis.

4. Beliefs become words, which become stories about what has happened and what is possible presently and in the future.

Words and story: “I cannot stand math. I am no good at it. I am a writer, not a math wizard, damn it. Screw math. Numbers are stupid.”

5. Words and stories, when repeated over and over and compared to the words and stories of others, further solidify beliefs.

Comparing math war stories with others, reveling in cycles that verify math’s evil conspiracies against the human race.

6. More things happen.

But not math.

And so on…

Tangled webs we weave
What a sticky mess.

Especially because the original belief (“I am not skilled in math”) was based on a subjective interpretation rather than anything resembling objective reality. It all could have played out oh-so-differently with an oh-so-simple reframe.

For instance, my interpretation of algebra being challenging could have been that difficult tasks are a unique and profound opportunity to grow and expand and learn.

The reason my interpretation played out the way it did was because of another set of beliefs I had, about adversity in general. Challenges were intimidating, made me feel inferior and inadequate, whatever else.

The beliefs that trials were intimidating, and that I was inadequate in the face of hardship, etc. were based on yet more interpretations of previous events.

A big daisy-chain of things happening, interpretations occurring, beliefs forming, words confirming, and stories perpetuating.

We could romp down this rabbit hole until our heads emerge from the other side of the earth, but let’s stay focused.

Digressing now, even though our beliefs can form in ways that lead to never-ending cycles of inadequacy pertaining to math (or anything else; like being able to completely recover from dependencies on self-destructive behavioral patterns), it is still an option to flip the script at any time.

But only if that’s what you want. Only if the advantage of doing so is seen. If the desire is there. If exploring new possibilities is appealing.

In my case with algebra, the perceived advantage was to do well in school.
Which I did. Then, another of my old beliefs began to shift.

(“I am a poor student who cannot ever get high marks so I won’t even try” transformed into “Righteous, I just graduated Summa Cum Laude!”)

Other people have different reasons for seeing advantages to changing beliefs about math or whatever else.

To score a certain job.

To win over that math-loving crush.

To take on a new challenge, explore new horizons.

To be empowered, closer to completion and wholeness.

To stand up bold and strong and demonstrate a new frontier of what is possible for individuals and for our world.

Am I still talking about math? You decide.

When an awareness of self-limiting mindsets develops and when an advantage to evolve beyond those limitations is perceived, then change is not only possible.

It is forthcoming.

Also published on Medium.