Fractional Thinking

Remember when your elementary school math teacher insisted you were going to need fractions later in life? They were right. Just maybe not in the way any of us understood it at the time.

Sam Altman says (paraphrased), “There are two ways to make things better. Do more good or do less bad. They lead to surprisingly different philosophies and actions.” Think of it as fractional thinking. Whenever we’re approaching a result, problem, or idea, we can look for a numerator and a denominator. This can come in handy at work and in the rest of life.

With hard number problems, it’s pretty easy to see. We might interpret higher profit margins as either an increase in sales while costs were flat, or flat sales with decreasing costs, etc. Hard number problems are mostly math with a more abstract human element. Fractional thinking gives us the story behind the numbers.

Squishier problems still have some rough numeric value. We can solve for a prospect to customer conversion ratio by either increasing the number of prospects we see and lowering the quality of our pre-screening process, or increasing our quality prospect filters and lowering the need for more prospect meetings. It’s squishy because there’s a greater human element here with numbers and personalities mixed in the equation. Fractional thinking can help us set a course and measure progress.

Purely philosophical problems have numerators and denominators too. If we want to raise better kids we might focus on showing more kindness from us with less exposure to others, or we might seek to show more kindness from others but in turn spend less time with them. These are mostly human problems with abstract math. Fractional thinking can help us see the tradeoffs we are making at the heart of our choices.

All three of these (and everything in between) make what seems to be Altman’s real point: the approach we choose to take makes all the difference. We can add a lot of value in our professional lives by helping others to see these factors too. Understanding the numerator and denominator can help us explain the results we got and pursue the results we seek. And, we can get there by highlighting choice and color for others. It’s powerful.

So I guess our math teachers really were right, we are going to use this stuff every day. Our intentions always matter. And, As Altman points out, fractional thinking can help us be even more intentional in our approach.

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