Math Geek Mom: Looking at the Long Run

The other day I found myself watching “Good Morning America” while waiting for some work to be done on my car. One of the guests being interviewed spoke of making decisions while looking at several different time horizons. Her name was Suzy Welch, and she had written a book called “10-10-10” about decision making. Her suggestion was that we make all our decisions on three horizons at once. We should ask, she proposes, what our decision would mean for our life ten minutes from now, ten months from now, and ten years from now.

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April 16, 2009

The other day I found myself watching “Good Morning America” while waiting for some work to be done on my car. One of the guests being interviewed spoke of making decisions while looking at several different time horizons. Her name was Suzy Welch, and she had written a book called “10-10-10” about decision making. Her suggestion was that we make all our decisions on three horizons at once. We should ask, she proposes, what our decision would mean for our life ten minutes from now, ten months from now, and ten years from now.

As she spoke, the math geek in me came out. I realized that in order to make decisions about the future, one must calculate “expected values” for different events. For example, in order to decide whether to buy a lottery ticket, one should ask what the probability is of winning, and then multiply that by the payoff to find the expected value of entering the lottery. If the expected payoff is greater than the ticket price, this could be a good use of one’s money, but if the expected payoff is less than the ticket price, it is not a good use of one’s money (unless you just like the thrill of betting.) When the returns to a lottery grow immensely large (such as into the hundreds of millions), it is usually accompanied by a growth in the number of people entering. Therefore, while the actual winner would receive a large amount of money, the expected payoff to each of the hundreds of millions of people who enter the lottery may actually be very low, probably below the cost of entering the lottery.

Other decisions require us to assess expected value, and in order to do this we have to have some sense of the probability of an event occurring. However, this might be easier to estimate in the very short run (10 minutes) than in the long run (10 years.) Therefore, while I found her approach interesting, it seemed that it lacked a way to accurately assess the probability of future outcomes, information that would be needed to make good decisions about the future. I did, however, like her comments that such a process forced us to articulate what our values are, and by what values we were choosing to live.

Two recent events made me think that perhaps we should actually add another horizon to her process.

The other day, I learned that one of our math majors has a second interview with the editorial division of a publishing house that produces mathematics text books. I realized that, should she get the job, the impact of her education at Ursuline College will sit on the shelves in professors’ offices for many years to come.

In a recent conversation, my young daughter announced to me that she plans to have four children, three girls and one boy. She even told me what their names would be. As I tried to imagine these unborn grandchildren that my daughter seemed so certain would enter her life some day, I realized that the way I parent her today will influence how she parents her own children some day, and how they parent my great grandchildren.

I realized then, as I recalled both these events, that the author of the book did not go far enough with her process. Those of us who are teachers and parents need to make decisions thinking not just of ten years in the future, but also, ten decades in the future, for that is the world in which our grandchildren and their children will live, and that is the world in which our work and the work of our students will reside. As I thought of this, I was reminded of a bumper sticker that I have tucked away somewhere. It says “To Teach is to Touch the Future”. Of course, one could also say that “To Parent is to Touch the Future.” Once again, I am reminded how difficult the two jobs we have are!

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