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It is an interesting time of year on campus: test time. Students are being asked questions and working very hard to find a “right answer”. Some do not understand the true meaning of being right.

First year students understand that the questions are more challenging than those seen in high school because there are more ways to make a mistake.

But “being right” is not the same as “not making a mistake”. For example, I am often asked “which formulas should I memorize for the test?” The problem with this question is that the most serious mistakes are made by people who use a formula to create an obviously silly answer. You cannot challenge a number if they do not understand its meaning.

This problem is not limited to university undergraduates. Recent experience has (again, sigh) taught people in real estate industry that misunderstanding either the raw data or how those numbers are manipulated has consequences. “Liar loans” and their cousins destroyed several leading financial firms in the U.S. Real estate attracts some people because the business involves big financial numbers and, when trends in real estate prices are debated, it is tempting to tweak the numbers to make something look slightly better (while hoping that the audience does not too many tough questions). I am hopeful that the evolving discussion on how to measure the risk dimension of a situation will turn into something which adds value. We in GREG do not formally teach some of the software which is widely used in industry because, if there ever were a major problem, thinking skills will find a solution faster than trying to convince the software that it created the problem.

Numbers have meaning because numbers lead to a decision and it is the decision which is the important answer. Any meaning is associated with that decision (or the decision which was not taken but should have been). Meaning is not something which can be found easily by Google, in Wikipedia or in a calculator.

In Canada, it is hard to find websites, podcasts and other media which talk about numbers intelligently. Looking elsewhere, I suggest

or the Stats_Canada Twitter account.

Good students progress beyond simply being “right”. They are exciting to teach because they have control over the mechanics of a calculation and are looking for even greater challenges. Increasingly, that challenge takes the form of competitions where teams of selected students present their ideas to judges drawn from the industry. In a competition, the judges’ questions mostly ignore the number produced by a formula because knowing the formula is not the goal of the competition but the entry ticket.

Our team will go to New York City to meet some of the best real estate students from around the world. I hope and expect that they will do well because they are comfortable with the numbers. More importantly, they understand how to communicate meaning. That is a powerful combination.

PS: Congratulations to the team from Cushman& Wakefield which won first place in the Greater Toronto Area NAIOP Development Challenge and included two of our recent graduates (Jaimy Hunt and Marc Delena).