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Are you a “math person”?

I wouldn’t consider myself a “math person”, yet I’m an analyst at a tech company and last Tuesday, I spoke at my alma mater’s Women in Business club about Women in Tech.

Do I count as a “Woman in Tech” even though I’m not an engineer? When did I put myself into the “not a math person” box? Why? Is one born as a “math person” or is this something that can be learned?

The stories we tell ourselves, the labels that we (or others) sometimes subconsciously and often arbitrarily assign to ourselves, can hold us back. I have been an analyst for the last three years, telling myself that I’m not a math person.

Do you think that story has given me confidence to do my best work or made me doubt my abilities?

Which do you think helps you achieve your goals- confidence, or doubt? You can find the answer to this question in a piece of literature called “The Little Engine that Could”. An early version goes as follows:

A little railroad engine was employed about a station yard for such work as it was built for, pulling a few cars on and off the switches. One morning it was waiting for the next call when a long train of freight-cars asked a large engine in the roundhouse to take it over the hill. "I can't; that is too much a pull for me", said the great engine built for hard work. Then the train asked another engine, and another, only to hear excuses and be refused. In desperation, the train asked the little switch engine to draw it up the grade and down on the other side. "I think I can", puffed the little locomotive, and put itself in front of the great heavy train. As it went on the little engine kept bravely puffing faster and faster, "I think I can, I think I can, I think I can."
As it neared the top of the grade, which had so discouraged the larger engines, it went more slowly. However, it still kept saying, "I—think—I—can, I—think—I—can." It reached the top by drawing on bravery and then went on down the grade, congratulating itself by saying, "I thought I could, I thought I could."

In case you are too lazy to read two paragraphs, I will give you the gist of the story: There was a small engine and a large engine. When the large engine was asked to carry a line of cars up a hill, it doubted its abilities. It assumed it was unable to carry the weight up the hill, so didn’t even try. Meanwhile, the small engine’s confidence and bravery allowed it to accomplish a feat that seemed impossible.

I believe this label of being a “math person”, or not, is sewn into our identity at such a young age, and it does nothing but infuse limiting doubt into our lives.

It stops us from even trying to make it over that hill. Now, I’m not saying that we all need to enjoy math and pursue technical careers. What I’m saying is, the statement, “I enjoy reading more than I enjoy doing math” has a different effect on us than the statement, “I am not a math person.”

So, what other limiting stories are we telling ourselves? How can we change these stories from being judgmental and negative, to being factual and neutral?

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