Student and Graduate Publishing

Why Mathematics in Real Life is Tougher than in a Textbook

Friday, 15 August 2014 10:52

By Ashish Mamgain

Throughout my academic life I have been an ardent fan of Mathematics.

It fits in well with my academic tastes and I have a natural aptitude for the subject. Having now completed one year of my job, I have realized a
huge difference between the Mathematics I used to study in school and university, and the kind I now use in my professional career – the latter is much tougher!

Is this because it is more advanced? Well, no. The Mathematics used in a professional scenario is much simpler than the one taught at university.

Is it because I have lost my academic edge? That is debatable. The real reason why it is tougher is that it is not just Mathematics. It is so much more than that!

I remember my first meeting with the chairman of my company.

We were discussing the land revenues and how to maximize profitably, whilst leaving sufficient cash balance. If the same problem was given to me at university, I would have assessed this situation and made a decision within 5 minutes (tops). But in the workplace, it took me more than half hour. The problem simply 
was not just mathematical. There were so many angles to it - the legal aspect, the business aspect, our negotiation capability with our partners and much more… There was no one right answer.

Many answers depend on what might unfold in the future.

So, it is not just Mathematics.
It is management and strategy
as well. Both of these come into play even though I am the one
in the company wearing the mathematical hat, so to speak.
In one of the critical meetings we had with our auditors, there was
a situation when the partner from the auditing company asked me to divide two numbers mentally and
I took two minutes! Shame! But
I was not just dividing numbers
in my mind; I was analyzing the implications of that exercise and comparing it with numbers from different scenarios. It is not the calculation or the mathematical structure that takes time; it is the analysis and management in
the real world that consumes my efforts and time.

One of my favourite topics 
in Mathematics was Abstract Algebra – Groups, Rings and Vector Spaces to be precise. My concentration while studying was to do with these topics and the concepts that came with them. The consequences never really bothered me. I never compared the implications with other branches of science. Should I have done that? Yes but then I would have taken more time to solve the problems. Or should I have focused on certain parts of the theory and not understood them as well as a whole. Did I manage this well - aiming for higher scores and not letting the concepts take a deeper seat in the basement of my thoughts? Nobody can answer that. At least I cannot.

One of the things that get crunched along with the numbers in corporate life is risk. In academic life, solving a problem does not introduce any intrinsic risk into the system. Although failing a subject is very big risk for students, calculating a wrong answer in a meeting is a much bigger risk.

In the next meeting I attend, I shall try to keep it simple and focus on the calculation and not on its implications. But as I write this, I don’t think it will be a good idea…