Mental Math: The Struggle is Real

Alright fools, sit your butts down. Today’s blog post is an important one.

I’ll start this whole thing off with a confession. You’ve all heard me say that I can’t do math in my head, right? Well, that’s a lie. I am perfectly capable of doing math in my head.

I just can’t do it when others expect me to be able to do math in my head.

Elaboration: like a lot of people, I’ve always equated math ability with intelligence. I know that’s a narrow and inaccurate way to define intelligence, but for the longest time, math was my go-to smarts-o-meter. That’s probably because I used to be hella afraid of it and thus considered anyone who wasn’t hella afraid of it to be way smarter than I was.

But anyway.

I’ve long since redefined how I view intelligence. Namely, it’s very obvious to me now that people can easily be “intelligent” in a wide variety of things (think Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences). A dude who’s fantastic at painting but horrible with numbers, for example, can be just as intelligent as a dude who’s amazing with numbers but not so much with paint. And people who are not “book smart” (or “school smart” or whatever) can be ridiculously intelligent in other aspects of existence that just aren’t captured by that book smartness/school smartness.

I’m sure most if not all of my readers would agree with this.

However, if you’re someone who likes math and are around people who know you like math, they’re probably going to expect you to be good at mental calculations. That’s always been my experience, at least.

And that makes me panic like you wouldn’t believe.

Especially since going into the quantitative/statistics side of things, my ability to do math in my head—“on the fly”—has gotten worse. And I think that’s because if the people I’m around know I’m into stats, I suspect they automatically assume I’m some sort of human calculator. And if I can’t prove my amazing calculating abilities, then I’m too stupid to be studying something like stats. After all, who wants a statistician who can’t add 23 + 27 in their heads?

Here’s the thing. I can add 23 + 27 in my head. It’s super easy to do. But if you just ask me to do it, I will panic and not be able to because I’m too busy freaking out about being judged on if I’m doing the calculation quick enough or what would happen if I make an error.

That sounds really stupid and maybe a bit unclear. Let’s use pictures to clear it up a bit.

Here’s what I would suspect loosely happens in the head of a person without this “math on the fly” anxiety when they’re asked to add 146 + 279:


And here’s what happens to me and, I suspect, a good deal of others:


I’m not exaggerating. When someone poses a math question—even something simple like basic addition—I automatically lose focus on the numbers and start freaking out about how dumb they think I am if I don’t answer it right away.

Ridiculous? Yes.

Reality? Yes.

And I can’t be the only one. However, most of my friends (based on just watching them answer impromptu math questions) don’t experience this, so I just wanted to show you how it is for me.

So there you go.

2 responses

  1. I majored in math too and totally get this. For me it was those timed multiplication tables from elementary school. Those were traumatizing! It took me a long time to figure out that being good at math and being good at spitting out memorized numbers under pressure are not actually the same thing.


  2. […] Math: I explain what it’s like to struggle with doing mental calculations. […]


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