The first email came in at about 2:00 p.m.
600 million divided by 660,000 equals a little over 909.
The next a few moments later.
5.4 billion people is nearly the population of the whole World (estimated at 7 billion in 2012 by USCB)
“Well, shit,” I said aloud. It had happened again.
As part of my virtual book tour for Math for Writers, Linda Formichelli (the original Renegade Writer) had offered me a great chance to reach out to her readers, through her “Monday Motivation” email. I penned a piece called “4 Math Mistakes Writers Make—and How You Can Avoid Them.”
Unfortunately, there were 6 mistakes. Two of them were unintentionally made by little ol’ me. In the whirlwind of my virtual book tour, I had not edited carefully enough. I know what to do; I just didn’t take the time to do it.
Honestly, this is my worst nightmare. If anyone else in the world had made these mistakes, I’d easily reassure them: “Math isn’t life or death! We all make mistakes, and the world still spins. [Tweet this]The thing is to learn from our mistakes and move on.”
Easier said than done, apparently.
I don’t know where I got my math performance anxiety. Perhaps it stems from my strong sense of perfectionism in some areas of my life. I’ve had that trait since childhood, and I see it in my daughter. It’s why I prefer sewing to woodworking — with fabric and thread, I can pull apart mistakes and start again. Wood is not so forgiving.
Regardless, I must want to push through it. Why else would I choose two careers (teaching and writing about math) that put my math mistakes in the spotlight?
When I was a teacher, I had less of a problem with this issue. I told my students very plainly that I would make math errors. They were invited to correct me (nicely), and we would move on. (I had the same rule for spelling, which I really don’t care one whit about.) In the classroom, I saw my public mistakes as a teachable moment. Perfection is not required. Math is difficult, and we all screw up from time to time.
In regards to my most recent public math mistakes, I’m not worried that someone thinks that 600,000,000 ÷ 660,000 = 9 or that a reader went away from my article believing that there are 5.4 billion people in the U.S. I’m worried that these readers lost trust in my ability to teach them something about math. It’s what I tell other writers all the time: If you get the math wrong, your readers can lose faith in you.
But in the end I have to go back to my more gentle self. These mistakes happen — even to big wig mathematicians. (I’m not one of those, by the way.) If you made that mistake, I’d tell you not to worry about it. And in my line of work, I’d better get that message loud and clear. Because this is not the last public math mistake I’ll ever make. Not by a long shot.
When I worried out loud about this yesterday, a dear friend and colleague told me, “Whatever. People love to point out others’ mistakes.” And she is right. It’s not that anyone has been mean about it — none of Linda’s readers were at all. It’s about connecting. I don’t need to feel ashamed or worried. I’m pretty sure Einstein would laugh and tell me to forget about it, too.
Besides, I’m sure I’m not the only writer who is worried about making public math mistakes. Right?
Do you have fears about making math mistakes — in public or elsewhere? Help me feel better, by sharing your story. Please?