Maths or Magic?

A couple of years ago, in the midst of a particularly agonising breakup, I wrote an essay titled The Anti-Heartbreak Function. In it, I devised an equation aimed at helping me — or really, anyone — in selecting a life partner who would have the highest likelihood of not breaking up with me, or — in the event that we do breakup — have the least painful separation.

The gist of the essay is this: choose ten essential values or traits that hold significance for you (denoted as v1, v2, v3… to v10) and three immovable dealbreakers (denoted as d1, d2, d3). Ten values. Three dealbreakers. No more, no less.

During your first three dates with someone new — and preferably within the first three dates — allocate 1 for any trait or value that you discern in your partner. Self-awareness, for example, is one of the values I look for. And if the trait is absent — or worse yet, its contrary present — then mark it as 0.

Before you go on the fourth date, add everything up, and you should get a number that’s between 1 and 10.

If the total is less than 5, there is no need to proceed any further. The person is probably not suitable for you as a long-term romantic partner. You have my permission to cancel the date.

But if your total is more than 5, proceed to the next step.

On a separate sheet of paper, write down the three dealbreakers. And by dealbreaker I do mean dealbreakers. Truly non-negotiable issues. Someone not being a certain height, for example, is not a dealbreaker. Someone chewing food with their mouth open?


Wanting kids while your date prefers to remain childfree? Being allosexual while your date is ace? Requiring polyamory while your date is monogamous? Okay lah yes, those can be dealbreakers.

Assign 1 to the dealbreaker in question for every point of alignment. And for every mismatch, mark it as 0. Multiply the dealbreakers by each other, and you will get a result that’s either 1 or 0.

Anything multiplied by 0 is 0, so if your dealbreaker result is 0, there is no point in pursuing a relationship with this person, regardless of how high the total of their values are. But since the sum of their values is greater than 5 — which is the reason why you’re on this step to begin with — they might make a pretty good friend, so perhaps it might be worth considering that option?

If, on the other hand, the answer is 1, THE DATE IS ON!

To express this formula mathematically:

The Anti-Heartbreak Function, f(AH) = (v1 + v2 + … + v10) * (d1 x d2 x d3)

If f(AH) > 5, proceed with a relationship. If it’s < 5, end it.

It’s that simple.

This year’s Valentine’s episode of This American Life was titled Math or Magic. It’s about, broadly speaking, the two contrasting approaches people who are looking for long term partnerships take to dating.

The first group — the pragmatic “maths” — approaches dating as a numbers game. They go out, meet people, and regardless of how their date goes, they learn something about themselves and what they want from a partner. They then take those learnings and iterate on the next date. On and on and on, until they find someone with whom they want to be with for the long haul.

The second group — dubbed “magic” — values intuition and feelings above all else, often disregarding facts and evidence in favour of their gut instinct. This is the group that you’re more likely to hear say:

“I knew… I just knew.”

Ever since the breakup, my approach to dating has been quite systematic. I prioritise dealbreakers before considering values, recognising that without having dealbreakers in place, the values are irrelevant.

I have a rule of going on at least two dates with someone, regardless of how the first date went (if the person is up for it). This approach allows me to get a more accurate assessment of the person, especially because first dates are often awkward and not representative of someone’s true character.

I don’t believe in destiny. I don’t believe in “the one”. I believe that relationships — as the saying goes — are co-created, not stumbled into by chance.

My favourite story from the Math or Magic episode is of an Indian couple who met online in the mid 90s. It’s a very cute and totally mad story (also potentially dangerous as inspiration) that I will not spoil here because I genuinely think you owe it to yourself to listen to it in its entirety.

But one thing I wondered while listening to the story is whether or not part of the reason why they’re still together is because the centripetal force provided by their meet-cute is so strong that everything else in their life — including their relationship — stays in orbit.

A long time ago, back when I was in University, I was trapped in a 7-Eleven while it rained heavily outside. My apartment was nearby — only about a 5-minute walk — but with the rain, it might as well have been 5 hours away. I was considering going to the cafe next door to wait out the rain when a girl who lived in the same apartment block as me walked in. A girl who I’d seen around but had never spoken to. A girl who I thought was cute.

“I have an umbrella,” she said, after she was done with her purchase. “Would you like to walk back together?”

We walked slowly. Me, holding the umbrella; her, staying very close. I could feel the heat of her body; occasionally, our shoulders would brush against each other. And with every touch, I imagined a future together, full of holidays and dinner parties, where we would tell anyone who would listen the story of how we met.

The girl and I, we never hung out after that day. And right now, I don’t even remember her name.

More recently, a friend who I mostly align with in terms of values asked me to consider being together romantically. She wanted to get married, and — according to her calculations — I would make a good partner. I was pleased that she asked, obviously — no one’s ever asked to spend the rest of their life with me — but I politely declined because it just didn’t feel right.

My friend Syaz, who’s definitely a “magic person”, thinks that I’m also secretly magic.

“Because for close to two years, you dated someone who didn’t want to get married or have kids, despite you wanting both of those things,” she said. “That sounds a lot like magical thinking to me!”

Earlier this week, a colleague and I were tasked with testing battery grips in the office. We have a total of 8 cameras and 6 battery grips in stock, and along the way, we noticed that some battery grips work well with some cameras, but not at all with others. There seemed to be a certain compatibility — a certain disposition — between camera and grip. The test was for us to find out if that, indeed, was true.

So we made a grid in Excel — cameras as rows on the left, and grips as columns on top — and systematically tested each combination. If a camera-grip combo worked — and that meant the screen lit up and stayed on for longer than 30 seconds — we assigned 1 to the column. It’s 0 for every black screen.

About two-thirds of the way though, we had collected enough data to start identifying which grips were reliable, and which weren’t.

Just for the heck of it — before pairing it with the next camera — I asked my colleague if she thought a grip that had just worked with the previous camera, but had failed with three cameras before, would work with this new one.

“Yes!” she said confidently. “Because it just worked with the last one.”

That line of reasoning was, of course, very wrong. The whole train of thought was ridiculous. Because we weren’t really testing the grips in any order that was relevant. The fact that it worked with the previous camera was entirely random. It could’ve just as easily worked the first time and failed the three subsequent times if the order of our cameras had been different.

What was relevant — and the only thing I focused on — was the fact that this was a Grip that had a 75% failure rate. With a history like that, it almost certainly wasn’t going to work.

But I didn’t tell her that. I wanted to show her.

Before going into my spiel, before educating her on probability theory and explaining exactly why her reasoning was flawed, I flipped on the switch on the camera — mostly for effect — and just before I started talking, the LCD screen lit up.

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