To Be Free or To Be Bound: That Is The (Variable’s) Question

Listen to Kate read: To Be Free or To Be Bound

Where we learn that uniformity is unhelpful for growth.

You know what’s confused me for a really long time? Whether standing out from the crowd is a good thing or a bad thing. Or, to make that sentence not so extreme by my use of such polar opposite words that offer no gray area in between to contemplate – let me give you an example.

I was a professional actor when I was a kid in New York. When I was a teenager going on auditions, the first thing I’d do when I’d walk into a room of competitors is get a visual read on everyone. If there was no variety of look – same hair color, stature, or presence, then that could mean that the casting director was looking to match up people who (visually) looked alike so it would be believable that they were in the same family. As a blonde walking into a room full of brunettes only, that’d be my first assumption and I’d probably curse my agent under my breath for mistakenly sending me in.

Or, it could’ve meant that my agent intentionally ignored the visual description of the character I was to read for – they might have specifically been asked for only brunettes – but they sent me in because they knew, in every other respect, that I was a great fit for the role.

In the matter of if it’s good or bad to stand out in a crowd, one of the most important parts of the situational context is to understand what variables are present, and sometimes you need to investigate what type of variables they are.

If I stood out at an audition because I proved myself to be a good fit for the role and I was memorable because I was the one blonde there, then that was good. (And if by chance I did get hired, then that’s the reason hair dye was invented.) If I stood out because my agent made a big mistake – like, mixed me up with another client of hers and sent me on the wrong audition (that shit could totally happen) – well, that’d be bad.

It seems like if you can identify all the variables
and understand how they relate to the situation at hand,
then that gets you closer to the answer of
the standing-out or not-standing-out quandary.

While you consider all that and make your own Good and Bad list of situations of where you might stand out, I’m gonna go jump into some math basics about variables and variability and see what I can hook into, since they seem to have some significance IRL.
Imagine that!

1a. an expression that can be assigned any of a range of values,
1b. as a modifier, able to take any of a range of values: A variable sum

Harper Collins Dictionary of Mathematics

Ok, cool, variables have a lot going on for them. When someone says to you, “You can be anything you want to be,” or “The world is your oyster,” they’re basically saying, “You’re a living & breathing example of variable living!” Got it.


More generally, a variable is any letter used to stand for a mathematical object, whether or not one thinks of that object as changing through time.

The Princeton Companion to Mathematics
pg. 15

That being said, variables themselves can be varied 🙄 based on the adjective attached to it.

Type of Variable DescriptionAlgebraic Example with an “x” variable
FREEKinda like placeholders, they’re just a lone letter in an equation – commonly the letter ‘x’ – that has significant reason for their existence and they can take on any value – it just may not have been decided, yet. They’re the most basic & common of variables. They’re limitless!f(x) = 3x-1
BOUNDA bound variable is placed right after what is called a ‘quantifier,’ which is one of those symbols in an equation that is very directive about a quantity. Therefore, the variable is bound to that quantifier because that quantifier is the one dictating – and limiting – its value.∀x𝑭 (x)
The two most commonly used quantifiers are:
1) which means “for all”
2) which means “that exists”

Those are just two of the many variables that have a presence in just about all the fields of mathematics, and they’re not just within equation-heavy places like linear algebra. They’re found with our funky fractal friends and they’re in calculus and topology and … well, tell me what mathematician doesn’t have to consider variables in their work.

In one of my very favorite (non-math but, admittedly, still referentially science-y) books from the past few years, I was given the connection of the word variable to the word diverse, the word variation to the word diversity. Author Lulu Miller’s book “Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life” is part personal memoir and part biographical exploration of late 19th century taxonomist David Starr Jordan.

Though Jordan’s professional trajectory is incredibly interesting and was impactful in his field of science, his personal beliefs took a rather f’d up turn when he became an advocate for eugenics – the controlled and selective breeding of the human population by sterilization. In her book, Miller wrote about the science community’s reaction to this horrific practice:

Variation. Variation in genes, and hence in behavior and physical traits. Homogeneity is a death sentence. To rid a species of its mutants and outliers is to make that species dangerously vulnerable to the elements. In nearly every chapter of Origin, Darwin hails the power of “Variation.” He marvels over how diverse gene pools are healthier and stronger, how intercrossing between different types of individuals gives more “vigor and fertility” to their offspring, how even worms and plants that can produce perfect replicas of themselves are equipped for sex, for introducing variety back into the gene pool.

Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life
by LuLu Miller
pg. 133

The evening that I was reading this book and I read those particular words was coincidentally(?) the night before I was to have a big client meeting about the implementation of a DEI lens of practice throughout their organization.

If you have ever worked in an industry whose demographic is homogenous, or you’ve been a member of a community organization that was established decades prior, or even if you have participated in a social group that has a generational legacy to its participants – then there’s probably been recent discussions about planning for sustainability of that group, and the realization that in order to sustain they may need to look inward and examine the characteristics – both perceived and actual – of their members.

In my experience, at some point in those discussions, someone asks for
the value of diversity to be explained – where the word ‘value’ refers to time & effort, (hopefully) not to impact. This question usually comes up
in the early stages of implementing a strategic outreach plan.

Before I went into my client meeting the next morning, I looked back at my trusty math dictionary, and their second definition of the word variable is:

Variables may be used either existentially or universally; in elementary algebra variables occur in conditional equations representing unknown quantities of which the values are to be found.

Harper Collins Dictionary of Mathematics

Hrrrm, conditional equations sounds a lot like the situational circumstances of those casting auditions I went on. And it also sounds like many a discussion about diversity in the communities we engage in – our neighborhoods, our workplaces, our social gatherings. And that “…are to be found” bit there at the end, that’s acknowledging that though you may not understand why there’s a variable present right now and/or why it needs to be present at all, the value of its presence will come to be understood – in time.

The capacity for patience, especially where it concerns systemic change, is a lost quality for both organizations and I fear, us humans. The long-term effect of differentiation needs time to root – for a variety 😉 of reasons.

Again and again, the full & everlasting impact of variability in mathematics
is not always apparent until there’s a commitment to working through all the steps
in the equation
(or analysis, or process).

… diversity has a knock-on effect on the diversity performance of an organisation… As the organisation becomes better known as an employer committed to diversity, so its profile with target groups grows, communications with the talent pool become more efficient, and more role models are available to encourage candidates to stay the course.

The Value of Difference: Eliminating Bias in Organisations
by Binna Kandola
pg. 222

Variety IS the spice of life, y’all. It is more good than bad – no matter how much weight you put behind either of those words. Acknowledging and valuing the variables that exist in just about everything we do and (certainly) everyone we meet is how we all grow, personally and as a whole species; what a great ever-present opportunity that we all get to experience. It makes sense to me to identify – and understand – the value of the variable in the specific conditions you are in; are they free (as a valid placeholder yet currently with unknown value), or are they bound (to a quantifier — and is that quantifier you)?

Having variants matters. If you have a number of variants, they can all fight it out and the best will survive while the weaker ones will be pruned. Then the best ones will sprout new variants, and the same process of selection will take place. The ratchet of evolution will advance you towards ever more efficient variants. If, however, there is no mechanism for producing variants, then the unique candidate will live or die simply on the basis of its own qualities vis-a’-vis the rest of the world.

Metamagical Themas: Questing for the Essence of Mind and Pattern
by Douglas R. Hofstadter
pg. 694

No matter what the variables are that you need to consider, let’s agree that standing out is good in the name of diversification and its sustainable existence.

Thanks math, you’re the best.

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