3.14159 Impossible Things Before Breakfast
Musings on the approach of ‘Pi Day’
First off, let’s be clear: I’m not a dedicated ‘numbers guy’. I’m functionally numerate, but I don’t get excited about mathematics or spreadsheets or beautifully elegant equations.
So when an old childhood friend told me he and his kids had developed a methodology to help anyone, from young children to octogenarians, learn hundreds of digits of Pi, my first thought was not “OMG, I MUST learn more!”, but rather, a politely sceptical “Why?”
But as he told me about the methodology, I became intrigued. I had never learned a series of digits longer than a telephone number and even that limited skill largely atrophied once I had my first mobile phone.
Eric walked me through the methodology in about 15 minutes, and as I sipped a glass of wine skimming through his book, I discovered that in the course of less than an hour, I could easily write Pi to 48 digits. A little more time and I was up to 96. Eric’s son and daughters can each remember Pi to several hundred digits.
Let me repeat that. I – who have been known on occasion to forget my four-digit PIN– can now, with ease and enjoyment, remember the first 96 digits of Pi. I find this phenomenal, not because the memorisation of Pi is of great use to me in my daily life (though I have won a couple of juicy bets), but because it is something so far outside the realm of what I believed possible for me that it seems nearly miraculous.
The key to learning long strings of numbers (or, as it turns out, memorising any series of items), is to use the things our brain is good at to support the things we aren’t so great at. My brain (and the human brain in general) didn’t evolve to memorise huge strings of numbers. It does however, have a great capacity to learn and remember stories, as this is how we passed down vital survival information from generation to generation. The human brain is also exceptional at spatial memory. To survive, we needed to remember our surroundings, to avoid locations where danger lurked and to navigate our way to the fresh-water spring, to the animal hunting grounds, to the place where fruits and berries grew.
And so, we start with a simple system to turn numbers into sounds, before turning sounds into words, words into stories and unfolding the action of those stories in a space that is intimately familiar to each one of us. The result of this simple, but profound system is that the impossible suddenly becomes effortless.
In our hectic world, we beat our heads against the wall day after day trying to do things that feel difficult or nearly impossible for us. As individuals, in our families, in our personal and business relationships and in our organisations, we are constantly struggling and striving, often using the same types of thinking, the same ‘obvious’ approaches, the same ways of doing things, without ever really stepping back and thinking: “Is there actually a better, simpler, more efficient way? Something that I haven’t even tried or perhaps don’t even know about?”
The feat of remembering nearly 100 digits of Pi might not change my life, but the realisation that, until the moment I achieved that feat, I may have been completely underestimating my brain’s capacity, certainly has. Because ever since, I’ve started to seriously ask myself the question: “What else seems impossible to me right now that might be completely feasible if I just go about it differently?”
Musings on the approach of ‘Pi Day’ First off, let’s be clear: I’m not a dedicated ‘numbers guy’. I’m functionally numerate, but I don’t get excited about mathematics or spreadsheets or beautifully elegant equations. So when an old childhood friend told me he and his kids had developed a methodology to help anyone, from young…