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What failing at maths taught me about life

Updated: Jun 8, 2023

The exquisite agony of getting things wrong

Failure sucks. Anything which smells like shame is the kind of thing I used to run a mile from. It took me years to work out this kept me small and stuck, which is exactly what I was trying to avoid.

Maths is a perfect example. I used to be terrified of numbers. Sometimes the pressure of absolute right or wrong clashed with the idea that everyone else knew this stuff. And this arrived dressed as shame and embarrassment. I used to hide and avoid numbers at all costs. It showed up as messing up my messing up documents, transposing phone numbers to, never looking at my bank account, to being terrible at business. Quite simply, I thought I was stupid. I tried every trick I could think of not to have to admit this to other people, even though I told myself at least once an hour.

When I was diagnosed with dyslexia, by a chance conversation, I cried with relief. When I told my high-flying financial analyst flatmate, she slowly mouthed the words "didn't you know?" in awe.

When someone throws equations at me, my brain just freezes. It isn't like I am being slow; my brain just decides to play musical statues. And the only tune on repeat is "when will they stop looking at me and expecting an answer?" And all this hiding not only made me feel stupid, it literally made me more stupid. Because I was so filled with shame. I did not ask people to explain things in different ways or look for ways I may understand what was being proposed. Or find new ways to learn or reframe the information in a way which was digestible for me. I just hid for many years.

When I finally got the diagnosis, it was like I'd been granted permission to ask for help. And alongside this came the ability to advocate for myself. I was able to say, "I don't understand". Or "can you rephrase that?" or "please say that using different words". I was able to ask questions to get the information I needed. I was able to ask people to repeat things. I changed my accountant; I took classes, looked things up, and double-checked things that I had never been able to look at before.

This meant I had the confidence to get a grip on what my finances were. I was able to know where I was standing before I tried negotiating. And I was not constantly in fear of being caught out.

None of this would have been possible when I was too frightened to be willing to get things wrong. When I decided that I was willing to make mistakes, I became willing to learn.

There is no space for growth when you're afraid of making the wrong move. Being willing to be wrong and being willing to make mistakes is the key to all of the growth you have ever dreamed of.


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