Numbers have a strange slipperiness


People aren’t like numbers. They are more like letters, and letters want to become stories. People have stories to tell. (Incredibly Loud and Up Close, by J Safron Foer)

I don’t remember records, final scores and statistics. Numbers have a strange slipperiness; they suggest nothing. (Pat Summitt, long time UTenn Volunteer’s Women’s Basketball coach, looking back at her career)

These words from Foer and Summitt knocked around in my head for a long time. I take notes all the time—carrying around small notebooks, one per question or project. But scraps of papers, old envelopes, re-used post-it notes, become canvas for hastily written notes as I never know when the urge to jot something down will find me. These notes find their way into my little note-taking books. I’ve started experimenting with e-notes (Evernote), and I suspect it may prove a helpful tool, but Evernote and its impact on note-taking, well, that’s another topic, and a note-taking rumination isn’t really my point here. Instead, thinking about note-taking relates to why Foer’s and Summitt’s words struck a chord with me. I love words, stories, powerful phrases, provocative questions, soaring discussions. The story (and telling stories, re-telling, and organizing stories) is probably the single most important tool for learning.

“Numbers have a strange slipperiness.”

What sticks to numbers? Understanding? Insight? Passion? The promise of offering a path forward? Can I look at a diagram displaying the relationship between college GPA and career success or results of a survey purporting to measure creativity to figure out how these numbers inform the efforts of an organization to nurture a culture of innovation? Can I look at the most recent standardized test scores of students in two classrooms and get a sense of how that teacher must be teaching? Sure I can run SSPS to analyze the relationship between College GPA, major, and productivity, but will that help me design critical learning solutions for my organization?

Yes, numbers give us some important information. Just as we can see the outline of the red stop sign and the yellow slipper-when-wet signs in this picture—numbers allow us to glean a sense of shape or a blurred suggestion of what might be there. A danger is that we may be tempted to think that we can see “enough” of what we need to see. Relying on the numbers and different ways to crunch them offers an incomplete vision at best, and at its worst, relying on numbers diminishes the urgency of asking why? How? What next? What do you think? What might happen if we....?

Words, and the questions they form, elicit stories that help tellers and listeners make meaning. Stories provide a way to discern what is important, a way to organize and access information, and a method to tie together seemingly disparate themes for a fuller version of a larger whole.

What stories need to be uncovered in your life? In your organization? What questions do you need to ask to tease out the stories that have yet to be told? What assumptions about “how things are” can be explore by the stories told by those around you?

Image from Lazy_Artist


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