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  • Amina Aitsi-Selmi

Why I failed miserably at becoming a mathematician (and why it’s OK to be "emotional").

Happy Women’s Day! To all women and the men who honour them.

Need to make a decision and feeling stuck?

This is often the reason people seek help in their careers and personal life. Maybe you don't know whether it's the right time to push for a promotion; or whether you should knuckle down and be the absolute best in your current role. Maybe you have a secret desire to go part-time so you can spend more time with your family, but you don't want to be written off for future opportunities. Or maybe you're just not sure about whether you should tackle your boss's occasional snide comments, or just let them slide.

I’ve faced one or two dilemmas myself in my career as a medic. Addressing dilemmas is a large part of the work I do with high achievers and emerging leaders moving to their next level of development. It usually takes the form of:

EITHER: I do A then I’ll get X1 but unpleasant outcome Y1 will happen

OR: I do B then I’ll get X2 but unpleasant outcome Y2 will happen

How can this dilemma be solved?...For a quick answer (skip to the video!)

When I was a teenager, I wanted to be an electronics engineer. I loved logic and figured that emotions could be broken down into logical parts and dealt with efficiently!...Solving mathematical equations was the dopamine kick equivalent of a fantastic Monopoly win. Mathematics gave me the hope that every problem, including human suffering, could be solved.

I was accepted for the Mathematics baccalaureate and was on my way to solving the world’s problems one equation at a time. One year and one massively failed experiment in democracy later, my family and I found ourselves uprooted and on a new journey which didn’t involve a baccalaureate in Maths for me…

So my mathematical dreams failed but I learned a few things: it turns out that certain equations can’t be solved using real numbers; the real numbers realm has to be expanded to include imaginary numbers to get to a solution. In other words, the assumptions underlying the problem are a limitation to finding a solution and become a problem themselves! More than that, Mathematics is a model of reality, not reality itself. Reality can only be experienced not described. Einstein was right: problems cannot be solved from the same level of consciousness within which they emerge…

Similarly, our dilemmas cannot be solved from the same level of thinking that generated them. The black and white (either/or) thinking we get stuck in is in fact a product of the limitations of our model of the world. Yes, our thinking is limited, blocked, stopped dead in its tracks and so we go round and round the same thought loops. This begins to cause mounting stress.

Unfortunately, the stress of not having a solution makes things worse and before we know it, we’re excessively nervous or paralysed or both – a crazy 8 pattern! We start to continually sense that there is a problem that needs to be fixed immediately and that we’re failing at it. Eventually, the dilemma is firmly associated with negativity.

Once the negativity sets in, our brain cannot function optimally and the creative parts of our cortex are shut down leaving us at the mercy of very limited thinking that swings between running away (flight) or imposing our will (fight) – the lower evolutionary responses to stress.

It’s important here to slow things down and reconnect the brain properly. From a relaxed, expanded perspective (where the higher functions of our brain are involved), we can be more flexible in our thinking and find creative solutions. Often, the problem can recede and lose its unwarranted urgency. This allows us more time and space to sharpen our thinking and and find the right next step. There is always a way forward.

Sometimes the problem disappears with no effort on our part.

The real work from us is in knowing how to pull back from the unhelpful thinking patterns we learned at school and believing that there is a right answer that you can spew out through continuous analysis and that you must spew it out now. If I hadn’t gone through this process, I would be in a job that slowly kills my soul and on some sort of treatment for the screaming mimis (yes, that’s a technical term).

The big lesson? It’s OK to have emotions – positive and negative. They’re part of the information we need to integrate into our thought processes to live a better life – to feel more alive and make better decisions.

This conceptual-analytic approach cuts out the emotional and personal growth element. Integrating our emotional experience with our analytical thinking is needed to harness our motivation and enter states of flow. Afterall, life is not a problem to be solved. It’s an unlikely and precious experience - you drew the lucky number!

Understand the importance of emotions in your dilemmas and you may find yourself enjoying your “problems” as a challenge or game that allows you to soar to greater levels of competence, clarity intuition and creativity.


1) The first step is to do NOTHING! If you take premature action, it’s tantamount to tossing a coin and leaving the outcome up to chance (which has its merits). You are also setting yourself up for further dilemmas down the line.

2) Try and notice when the dilemma arises: what triggered it and why?

3) Reconnect with the emotions you’re feeling and allow them to subside e.g. through a mindfulness practice (this is the most powerful step in the process and may require support)

4) Write down the underlying assumptions of your dilemma e.g. there are no jobs out there; I can’t influence my boss; I don’t have expertise; I have to make a decision immediately; I’ll become homeless and die alone, etc.

5) Notice what happens as you continue to expand your perspective on the problem. The “solution” will arise from there. It may involve reaching out to someone, replying to a message, going somewhere or doing nothing. However, don’t expect your next step to be the final solution but to set you on the right path.

So I never completed the mathematics baccalaureate in Algeria and found myself in North Yorkshire doing A-levels including maths and sciences. During that upheaval something shifted and I couldn’t conceive of a career that didn’t involve people. Here began a new trajectory to study medicine, a profession that I hoped would bridge logic and emotions and satisfy my quest to alleviate human suffering. Little did I know my assumptions about the world were about to be challenged once again…

Until next week!


If you're struggling with career direction, work-life balance or breaking the glass ceiling right now and you want to talk about how we could potentially work together to achieve more clarity, inspiration and satisfaction with your career and life, then I've got some time in my diary next week so we can talk about whether we might be a good fit. Book your gift Career Turnaround Now call here:

Questions, comments or interest in Transformational Coaching to take your career and life to the next level? Email me on

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