What’s 24×17? C’mon, c’mon. The clock’s ticking. Struggling? Sweating? No answer? A guesstimate? Not sure? Not good at maths? Need more time?

Relax. No-one can do 24×17 without thinking about it. There is no ‘fast thinking’ route to 24×17. It requires calculation and that means deliberation. The answer is below – I just checked it on a calculator.

What’s interesting though isn’t the answer. It’s the reaction the question gets from different people. Personally, I looked at it, tried to round up 24, then to round 17, then lost it, reminded myself I’m rubbish at arithmetic and waited for someone else to come up with the answer.

A friend who’s ‘good’ at maths quite quickly got to “About 400…” and then frowned and struggled for the final figure. Another colleague who does a lot of numbers work – and is smilingly tenacious – also struggled, looked puzzled that he was struggling and continued to wrestle with it even after I’d told him not to. I could see he was still calculating despite me telling him the point of the exercise wasn’t the answer. Three other people thought for a moment, said ‘oh god, I can’t do maths’ and smiled wanly.

What’s interesting to me is we all failed, but how depending on our self-image on mathematical ability, we all had different responses to that failure. Modest satisfaction with being close, desire to stick at it, preference to leave well alone. And yet all of us probably had the tools to work it out in broadly similar ways.

Perhaps maths plays with so many people’s heads for this reason – the boundaries between mental arithmetic and calculation aren’t clear cut. Some people clip the fence, others set themselves carefully to jump cleanly and many just refuse.

Learning this helped me this week. Handed a sheet of figures – which normally I’d have glanced at, then avoided and jumped to conclusions on – I asked for a minute to study them. It took me nearer two, but then I’d understood them and was happy with what they said, and what I thought of them.

I’m finding numbers are not so scary and actually quite satisfying, if I steadily negotiate all the mental fences instead of leaping wildly or refusing. Perhaps we’d all be more prepared to jump if we knew most maths is not innate but carefully calculated.


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