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Why Math Professors are Hoarding Chalk and Why It Matters

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Nobody should care about chalk these days. Chances are young kids don’t even know what it is given this age of advanced technology. So why are world-class mathematicians hoarding a special variety of the white stuff?

The reasons, as Gizmodo covered in an article, are myriad:

Powerpoint slides, [Professor Brian Conrad] noted, don’t work for writing out a problem step by step. Plus, technology has that annoying tendency of becoming glitchy at the most inconvenient times.

What really surprised me, though, were all the reasons he had for finding chalkboards superior to whiteboards. “Maintaining a clean whiteboard is much more of a pain,” he said. There’s the cleaning fluid, which costs money, and the chemicals can cause health problems. Also, there’s no way to tell when a marker is running low, which is logistically, he explained, even more annoying than you think. “Because you can never tell when any of these markers are running out, people use them at random, and they all start running out at the same time during a talk. It’s a real nuisance,” he said. “I just find the logistics of carrying around a couple pieces of chalk easier than dealing with markers.”

Math on a Chalkboard

© Flickr user KimManleyOrt

There are some powerful lessons for business hiding in this obscure story about blackboards and college professors. Here are the top three:

Frustration Trumps Utility

Even though most people don’t use PowerPoint correctly, it seems like some computer-based system or even dry erase markers would be better than merely using chalk. But the nuisance factor of these approaches causes them to be dismissed.

If you’re designing a new process for your company, considering an upgrade to your software, or planning a group activity, figure out what the problems are going to be. Are they going to annoy people? Only a small amount of frustration will trump any value the new system has. And what’s worse, as the designer of the new process, you are most likely to dismiss any minor annoyances. Instead: work to remove them!

Details Make a Profound Difference

Even if you don’t spend your days scribbling equations, you probably know that chalk tends to get all over your hands. But Hagoromo brand has a “shiny, clear coating on the outside.” That keeps dust from transferring to your fingers and instead staying where it belongs.

Likewise, don’t sweat the small stuff. Implementing a new vacation policy? Survey people before making a chance. Organizing a catered event? Check for dietary restrictions. If mathematicians can get obsessed over chalk, you can get obsessed over details.

Newer Isn’t Always Better

Our society is fixated on getting the latest and greatest technology. Top university experts, too, are working to advance their field with cutting edge research. But just because something is new doesn’t mean it’s an improvement over the old. Dry erase markers don’t necessarily beat out chalk. And likewise, it isn’t always best to use the newest approach available.

That which is actually used is superior to that which is ignored, no matter how much better it may seem. If people are already taking advantage of something that works, leaving well enough alone is definitely an option. Too often, this choice is overlooked.

University Classroom

© Flickr user Benson Kua

The sad news about this rare brand of Japanese chalk is the company is apparently going out of business. That’s a reminder for any business: legacy systems and old ways of doing things are always worthy of consideration. Take time to analyze what you have before throwing it away. You may just want to hold onto it for longer than you ever dreamed.

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Robby Slaughter
Robby Slaughter is a workflow and productivity expert. He is a nationally known speaker on topics related to personal productivity, corporate efficiency and employee engagement. Robby is the founder of AccelaWork, a company which provides speakers and consultants to a wide variety of organizations, including Fortune 500 companies, regional non-profits, small businesses and individual entrepreneurs. Robby has written numerous articles for national magazines and has over one hundred published pieces. He is also the author of several books, including Failure: The Secret to Success. He has also been interviewed by international news outlets including the Wall Street Journal. Robby’s newest book is The Battle For Your Email Inbox.
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