I Can’t Do Math: Overcoming the Mental Block between Creative Thinkers and Mathematics

It was a brisk Tuesday in Autumn in our Colorado home in 2010. I had on a horrendous striped turtleneck with a tank-top over it (I am going to hell for that fashion choice) and whitewashed jeans (again, I am aware that I am going to hell) with three rubber, Hot Topic bracelets on my wrist and my hair pulled into a tight ponytail and hair-sprayed into submission. My mother had poured me a bowl of cereal (which I hated) and was about to pour milk over it when I declared with the drama and force of Laurence Olivier, “I can’t do math!” My mother, being the ever level-headed presence in my young life replied, “Yes, you can.” To which I replied, “No, I suck at it! I can’t do it!” and stormed off to my room (like I had seen Hannah Montana do in the episode I had watched the day before) and sobbed over word problems that I had deemed completely outside of my realm of understanding.

I eventually saw the error of my ways and stopped wearing striped turtlenecks and tank-tops, retired my whitewashed jeans, threw away my Hot Topic bracelets, and learned that if your hair feels like a helmet then you have probably applied too much hairspray. However, there is one thing from 2010 that I never seemed to leave behind: the unwavering belief that I was incapable of doing math. It persisted throughout my entire middle school, high school, and college career. When I struggled with math it was because, “my brain doesn’t work that way.” When I did well in math it was “a fluke” and would probably never happen again. I built up a resistance to math slowly and surely, like Wesley built up a resistance to iocane powder in The Princess Bride. I slowly convinced everyone around me that I couldn’t do it either. My parents stopped pushing me, my teachers gave me a break, my friends made a joke out of it, and it became not just an opinion, but a fact: I could not do math.

Many creatives are probably nodding their heads currently in solidarity. Creative people are geniuses at creating safe spaces for people who did not fulfill the expectations of society. Being a creative person is supposed to be liberating, but unfortunately we fall into our own traps of stereotypes and expectations. One of the most popular is that we have no talent for mathematics. In fact, I’m sure the first place that I picked up the idea that I was “terrible at math” was a TV show that featured a creative character struggling with or simply not doing their math homework. In some ways, it is a badge of honor as a creative person to reject the world of STEM and claim that our minds are too differently wired to be able to coexist in the same world as engineers and analysts. We think that this kind of action makes us “people who think outside of the box”. What we don’t realize is that our rejection of the analytical and quantitative has actually put us in a box that society created just for us. Our rebellion is not only expected, but it is hoped for. We can now easily be passed over for leadership positions, intellectual conversations and a spot at the table where decisions are being made, because we have already counted ourselves out.

On the other side of things, we are often counted out before we even get a chance. Let’s be honest, our brains do work differently than people who have a more analytical preference. This means sometimes we have to take math problems slower, we need a concept explained a different way or oftentimes, we need to do an equation in a way that makes more sense to us. Our natural gift for seeing the potential in new and unique methods can be seen as offensive to those whose worlds are held together by structure and rules. We are often made to feel unintelligent when we don’t get it right the first time or when we need to try thinking of it in different terms. This can turn creatives away from the world of mathematics forever, because we were made to feel less than, when really we were equally capable if given the opportunity to explore without judgement.

Some people may be reading this and thinking, “But I really am not good at math. It wasn’t a choice I made. No one made me feel less than. I’m just not good at it.” Here’s what I believe to be true: every single person is capable of doing math and trying hard to get better at it will make you a better person. I have to believe this, because for years I have spouted that everyone is capable of creating art and trying to get better at it will make you a better person. If one side of this conversation piece is true, the other has to be as well. If stimulating the creative parts of your brain with dance, theatre, art, and music contributes to the greater health, well being, and success of a person, then opposingly, the study of mathematics, statistics, and analysis has to also contribute to making you the best version of yourself. The difference is that math is shoved down our throats in school, while art is scarce, but the flaws in our education system do not outweigh the benefits of creative people having a strong grasp of mathematical concepts and their practical uses. If you believe that engineers should read Shakespeare, then conversely you should believe that ballerinas should know how to do linear equations.

We all are capable of learning math and I think creative people have incredible potential to do math well, because math in itself is highly creative. Think about it; equations can be done in so many different ways and the world of math is unending. There is always a new discovery, some of them win a Nobel Prize, and some of them are small personal victories celebrated in bedrooms with flashcards. Math is poetry. Math is magic. Math is art. So many of us have cheated ourselves out of an art form, because we told ourselves a story that we didn’t belong there or even worse, we were told by someone who did not understand our beautiful brains that we were not welcome there.

Math opens so many doors for creative people. Math helps us run our own businesses and nonprofits. It allows us to design sets and instillations with perfect specificity. It helps us organize teams, manage time and measure the impact we make in our communities. Being a creative who understands and celebrates math is the definition of thinking and living outside the box.

This post is prompted by my high dive back into the world of math by way of GRE study preparation. When I decided to start studying for the GRE, I talked to my brother, who somehow has always believed in me more than I could possibly believe in myself. I told him I didn’t think I could do it because the math section is very difficult. He laughed at me and told me I would have to work at it, but that I was completely capable. My first day of studying I sat down prepared to be overwhelmed and terrified, but suddenly five hours of studying had passed and I’d honestly enjoyed every moment of it, because I remembered back before “2010 Alyssa” decided she was incapable of doing math. While I remembered how to factor and cross multiple, I was reminded of a young girl doing worksheets on the floor with her father and laughing with joy when the impossible problem was solved… just like magic… just like art.

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