Big numbers are not scary

Because they’re still numbers. You’re scared of them because you’re not used to seeing them on a regular basis.

The recent announcement of the US public debt being in the neighbourhood of 14+ trillion had caused some waves. You can relate with 0 to 20 easily. You can count reasonably well to 100. You might even be fairly good at handling numbers of up to 10 grand.

But a trillion? Your hands start to sweat.

People’s reaction to numbers seem to increase with the magnitude of the numbers, particularly if there’s a dollar, pound or yen sign attached to it (or any other monetary sign).

Well, the numbers are just going to grow. The earth’s population is going to grow. From what I understand, debt (not just that of US) will continue to grow (it has to, to keep the economy growing. It has to do with international borrowing or some such. Hey, I’m not an economist). The size of your computer’s storage capacity will grow.

So deal with it.

When I heard about the US public debt amount, I was only mildly surprised. I think it has to do with my exposure to numbers. And not just because I have a background in maths. Look, my first job had me looking at data that are 7 or 8 figures. And they’re of debt. I got quickly blasé about millions of dollars (of debt no less) within a month or two.

Then somewhere down the line, I was associated with a million dollar deal, of which I was tasked to create a website for a customer. And the crux of the deal seemed to hinge somewhat on my website. I had to design the website’s look (Ha! Me! Web designer!), craft a good login system, write it for security (because the website’s public), deal with SSL certificates, map the public web URL and the private subdomain IP address (oh networking stuff!), make it look somewhat like the competitor’s (because the sales team convinced the customer to switch providers), design the backend database, write the programs that will feed the database all of the transactional data (and plan the schedules for running the programs). Basically, almost everything technical, that’s me.

Oh and I had to do it within 1 month (it was the holiday December season too). Because that’s how long the sales team gave me for when the customer wanted it done. And I did it, even as I managed to handle tasks given to me by my ex-manager (long story) as well as my own tasks. And I still managed to do tech support. “The network is not working.” I went and checked, and plugged out the LAN cable, blew off any dust, plugged it back in, and the network’s back on. I’m not kidding.

Where was I?

That million dollar contract website also had to handle millions of satellite call transaction data. You see a million here, a million there, and suddenly big numbers aren’t so scary.

Then there’s the fact that my salesperson brother tells me stories about his work and customers. His company has a VIP pass that you can have only if you spent more than 600 grand a year. This means you’ll probably have spent upwards of, if not more than, a million dollars a year at the store. My brother has a personal sales target of over a million dollars a year.

My point isn’t to be insensitive to big numbers, even financial ones. The point is to not be scared of them. Fear is crystallised when you can find words to describe it. It’s even worse when fear can be numerically measured.

As my maths professor once said, “Keep cool and calm” on the subject of solving a nasty problem. “Then just do it.”