I remember when I was in school, the prevailing attitude in the classroom was, "When are we ever going to need to know this?" The much sadder one was, "My Mom and Dad said that I'm never going to need to know this stuff."
I couldn't have told you, when I was 10 years old, that I'd need to understand queueing theory one day in order to finish an Oracle project I had to do for Fidelity Investments. Or that I'd be able to win a Jim Sundberg autographed World Series baseball by using the distributive law of multiplication in my head while he was showing 400 people how Gaylord Perry liked his signs on the mound. It didn't matter to me, because I just had faith that there was a good reason I was supposed to learn everything I could in school. Having that particular faith was no accident.
I don't remember my Mom and Dad ever forcing me into doing math. I knew, of course, that it was My Job to do as well as I could in school ('A's are loafing unless they're '100's). But I don't remember ever feeling forced.
One of the things I fondly remember my Dad doing with me was glide slope calculation. Dad flew for many years for United Airlines. He retired as a 767 captain a long time ago. One of his priorities as a professional was to conserve fuel for his employer. It used to bug him when a pilot would constantly monkey around with the throttle during the approach to a landing. My Dad told me his goal on approach was to dial back the power one time at cruise altitude, at the very beginning of the descent, and then never touch it again until he turned on the thrust reversers after touchdown.
So he played this game with me, especially on car rides, because it was a 30-minute drive each day to where I went to grade school. He'd give me the altitude we were at and the altitude we needed to descend to, and either a time limit or the number of miles outbound we were. Then he'd ask me to calculate the sink rate in my head. He put triangles into my brain that I could see every time he asked me a question like that, and I'd hatch on it with him until we came up with the right sink rate. Or he would ask me things like, if the nose is pointing to heading 026, then what heading is our tail pointed at. So he put circles into my brain, too.
Every once in a while—oh, and I loved this—he would give me a paper flight plan form, with dozens of tiny cells to fill in, and I would fill them all in. I was 6 or 7 when we was doing that. I of course didn't know how to do it correctly, but I filled it all in anyway. Whenever I was really worried about doing it "right," I'd ask my Dad, and he'd tell me the kinds of things I should write down and which cells I should write them in.
You know the biggest value of that flight planning experience? It was that I couldn't wait to find out in school someday what point meant. You know, as in "three point five." I remember the day in class when a teacher finally taught us about decimal points. I felt sooo cool because now I knew what "three point five" actually meant.
My Dad did things with me that got me interested and excited about doing math, all on my own, without making me feel like I was being punished by it. Thus the abundance of wonderful opportunities that I have today are largely a continuing gift from him. I hope that another gift he gave me is the ability to be a good enough dad myself for my own kiddos, but of course I worry that I'm not doing it enough, or well enough. Telling stories about it helps remind me how important it is.
What reminded me of all this is a little document called "A Short Course in Human Relations," autographed by Bobby Bragan. It sits here in the foyer of our Method R office. I see it every single time I walk through our door. You've probably heard the following statement:
Say you were standing with one foot in the oven and one foot in an ice bucket. According to the percentage people, you should be perfectly comfortable.Bobby Bragan said that; I think it was in 1963. It is a classic illustration of skew, which is vitally important to my career. Bobby Bragan, though, is an American hero for lots of good reasons. You should read about him.
Well, one night a few years ago, I got to watch Bobby Bragan speak to a small group. His talk was fascinating. He brought a huge box of stuff up to the podium with him, and he warmed up with a game. He opened by pulling something out of the box and saying whoever can answer this riddle gets the prize. The first one was something like, "What has eighteen legs and two breasts?" Shocker, right? The answer was The Supreme Court. Whoever said that, Bobby Bragan tossed him the first prize of the night.
Pretty deep into his speech, he must have given out twenty prizes to people. Not me. I either didn't know the answer, or I didn't say it loud enough or fast enough. I watched prize after prize go out, until he brought out this autographed document called "A Short Course in Human Relations." He read it aloud. It was an important part of his speech. And then he asked the question that went with it: "Nine ballplayers come out of the dugout before each game, and each ballplayer shakes the hand of every teammate. How many handshakes is that?" The voice that said "thirty-six" was mine. I was doggone lucky that Bobby Bragan had asked a bunch of baseball players a math question, and right on the prize that I really wanted, too.
Math. You really never know when you're going to need it.