Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Numbers don’t lie, people do.

Written by: on February 9, 2024

I love numbers. Numbers make sense. Numbers add up. Numbers give objective data. Numbers do not lie. People on the other hand do lie. People do not always make sense nor add up. People often hide or lie about things, including numbers. These are principles I live by and found myself teaching to my employees concerning money management. If you have read any of Tim Harford’s works, you would not be surprised that I loved his book, The Data Detective: Ten Easy Rules to Make Sense of Statistics. This is apparently the same book as How to Make the World Add Up only with a different title for the US version.[1] This was the only way I could access the book in Africa on Kindle. Harford addresses statistics, data, and methods to view and interpret these figures for an accurate perspective. He gives ten practical rules to use in looking at data which I think is also applicable to other areas in life. These are similar principles to what I used in managing the accounting of a small clinic in a poor neighborhood in North Africa. It was basic and less sophisticated from Harford’s 10 rules, but the ideas were there, and it worked.

In my work and ministry context, these principles are very foreign ideas to those who live day-by-day. There is no perceived need to question numbers if the amount at hand will feed your family for a meal or for the day. This is a concept I cannot pretend to understand from my privileged position. I tried to learn from the staff and their circumstances. I also wanted to lead them into a new way of looking at money and data, for the sake of understanding and performing their jobs well. This is where I had to implement Harford’s rules into the most basic of situations. The following are some of the ways I tried to look at data at the clinic and how some of Harford’s rules and principles overlapped with mine

My number one rule was numbers do not lie, humans are the ones making the errors. What comes in minus what goes out equals what should be left in the cash box. This simple cash-flow system works great when you live in a cash-only society. This understanding did not come as easily to the person responsible for the money management. As I repeated and explained endlessly, trying different approaches, I could easily become frustrated– enter Harford’s first three rules.

Rule 1: “Search [my] feelings.”[2] Self-awareness, especially of my own emotional state, was key in continuing to slowly try to encourage change in my staff.

Rule 2: “Ponder your personal experience.”[3] If the numbers were not adding up, it was time to investigate further. This was where the employees would often throw up their hands and say, “I don’t know.” Instead, I tried to encourage them to look at the big picture along with the figures on the spreadsheet. What happened that day, week, or month that may help explain this discrepancy? In our situation it was often a missed receipt, a cash advance handed out without recording it, or numbers that were accidentally switched around. Little by little I started to see the employees use their own critical thinking, focusing on different aspects of the situation, their experiences, and began to solve the number problems.

Rule 3: “Avoid Premature Enumeration.”[4] “You cannot just put a number down because you think that is where it goes. You must know what the numbers mean first.” This was a conversation I had with my employee every quarter when it was time to prepare the employee social security payment. This is an area that continues to be a challenge.

“You need to ask ‘Why?;” was another phrase I repeated often. I believe Harford gets to the heart of all humans with his golden rule, “Be Curious.”[5] In my context, what seemed to be lacking with the staff in most areas was curiosity. They did not ask questions. They did not counter the status quo. They did not ask “Why?”. This was true in their work ethics, and it is also true in their society’s religious formation. They have been trained to memorize their holy book, repeat stories and arguments, never questioning why. These things are deeply ingrained in society. What can one do to breakthrough these beliefs?

The solution was to recognize my own fallibility. I had to own my own errors, learn from a different way of thinking, present quality statistics, data, and live it out these principles in my own life. This is the entire premise of Katherine Schultz’s book, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error. Schultz gives three techniques to prevent error. Firstly, recognize that mistakes will happen[6]. Second, be vulnerable.[7] Lastly use quality, accurate data.[8]  For my own growth, I had to accept that errors would happen no matter how hard I tried to prevent them. Through my own actions and responses, I had to show my staff how to be transparent, vulnerable, and willing to be held accountable. Lastly, systems were put into place to ensure that quality and accurate data could be recorded and easily used. As I struggled and sweated through my own learning curves, the employees were watching. They, too, were learning. I knew they were also on a path of transformation when they started to ask, “Why?” My hope remains that they will continue to ask questions and as Harford says, “once [they] start asking [questions], [they] may find it is delightfully difficult to stop.”[9]


[1] Tim Harford, “Announcing the Publication of The Data Detective,” Tim Harford, February 1, 2021, https://timharford.com/2021/02/announcing-the-publication-of-the-data-detective/.

[2] Tim Harford, The Data Detective: Ten Easy Rules to Make Sense of Statistics (New York City, NY: Riverhead Books, 2021), Kindle, 21.

[3] Harford, The Data Detective, 51.

[4] Harford, The Data Detective, 67.

[5]  Harford, The Data Detective, 267.

[6] Katherine Schultz, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error (New York City, NY: Harper Collins Publishers, Inc, 2010), Kindle, 304.

[7] Schultz, Being Wrong, 304.

[8] Schultz, Being Wrong, 305.

[9] Harford, The Data Detective, 282.

About the Author



Kari is a passionate follower of Jesus. Her journey with Him currently has her living in the Sahara in North Africa. With over a decade of experience as a family nurse practitioner and living cross-culturally, she enjoys being a champion for others. She combines her cross-cultural experience, her health care profession, and her skills in coaching to encourage holistic health and growth. She desires to see each person she encounters walk in fullness of joy, fulfilling their God-designed purpose. “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.” Romans 12:12 ESV

12 responses to “Numbers don’t lie, people do.”

  1. Graham English says:

    Kari, thanks for reflecting on your own current experience with data. I appreciate that you already had your own rules in place for the work that you are doing. You shared how you had found similarities in Harford’s 10 rules. Just curious, what would you change or adapt in your own system now that you’ve read the book?

    • mm Kari says:

      Thanks for your question, Graham. Honestly, there is not much I would change in my own life since reading the book. Harford’s principles have been ones I am familiar with and have been applying. What the book did for me was give me some fuel (confidence) to speak up more and encourage others to be more curious.

  2. Elysse Burns says:

    Kari, thank you for this post! I appreciated how you exemplified Harford’s rules with your clinic staff. It seems you did this naturally before having official vocabulary for it. God has given you a gift in this area! What do you think was your most effective approach with the staff when they were struggling to understand information? Is there anything you would do differently in the future?

    • mm Kari says:

      Thanks, Elysse, for your encouragement. I believe one of the most effective tools was not pushing the staff too beyond their emotional capacity. I did not do this flawlessly! But there were times I just needed to let it go and revisit another time when the weather wasn’t so hot or there were not other emotional challenges crowding their headspace. In the future I would spend more time trying to explain the importance of understanding data. Looking back, perhaps finding real-life examples that fit in their context could have helped the staff grasp how data affects their own world.

  3. mm Jennifer Eckert says:

    What a beautiful display of your heart for service, Kari. I felt as if I was in the room and you were speaking this blog to me. Clearly, you have built a foundation of trust with those you are collaborating with (supervising). What do you think are the major cultural drivers that keep them “uncurious”? How might some of that change in the future? Sending you Oklahoma blessings.

    • mm Kari says:

      Great question, Jennifer. In my context the majority religion is what I believe holds the strongest power on the curiosity of the people. They are publicly encouraged to follow without question their holy book and the religious leaders’ teachings. There is no encouragement for personal spiritual growth or to question what is truth. I believe Jesus is the only answer for future change!

  4. Akwése Nkemontoh says:

    Kari, I feel like you’re calling me out when it comes to money management because my mind was screaming “but numbers do lie” haha 😉

    I appreciate your example as it highlights how these rules are not just rules for interpreting data but rules that can be applied to so many aspects of our lives. That said, Jennifers’ question about what cultural drivers keep people ” uncurious” is related to one of my wonderings regarding your thoughts on the adaptability of these rules to different cultural contexts.

    Would love to hear your thoughts if you see these rules as being widely adoptable ( with some time and effort)in all contexts or what adjustments/ considerations may need to be taken into consideration to support application in other cultures.

    • mm Kari says:

      Thanks, Akwése. May I recommend the Ramsey Show podcast for your money management needs?! 😁 It is currently my podcast of choice (although there are gaps in application for those of us living abroad). I have completed my first month of being on a budget and it wasn’t as scary (or restricting) as I thought it would be.

      In response to Jennifer, I mentioned the religious aspect in my host culture. That said, I did start seeing little changes in daily practice at work and also in people’s personal lives. The change was SLOW and it had taken years of careful trust-building on my end until my advice was trusted. As they saw things “add up” in the work setting, they wanted to see it “add up” in their own lives.

      I think Harford’s rules could be contextualized into other cultures. The challenge is that it starts with the age-old problem of the heart. If a person is wanting to be open and to understand, these rules can become gifts and tools to help them do so. I’ve seen people in Africa be more open to understand life than those from my own hometown in PA. The question would be what is an individual’s desire to see beyond their own context and to be curious?

  5. Erica Briggs says:

    Kari, you’re clearly a leader who fully exercises your own curiosity. That character trait is difficult to teach but you did so by modeling. I wonder how many other skills or traits you are modeling. Have you noticed whether these new ways of thinking are being shared outside of the workplace environment? It would be interesting to see how the impact ripples into the larger community and in other areas – like their faith.

    • mm Kari says:

      Thank you for your comment, Erica. One of the staff member’s had her family start calling her the “foreigner” in her family. It was because she started to apply things in her life that we were implementing at work: making lists, buying supplies before they ran out, saving for future expenses, writing down questions to ask, etc. She had seen the improvement these things did at work and desired to apply it to her own life. I hope it continues to ripple!

      My lifelong desire and prayer is to see a curiosity in their faith beliefs. I try to model asking questions because when we ask those questions of our beliefs, God will respond with Truth.

  6. Noel Liemam says:

    Hi, Kari, I felt the same way when you mentioned about where you served that you felt talking about statistics is something that they don’t even worry about. They only worry about here and now. I believe the under developed countries do think about it but most of the time they more pressing needs. Thank you, Kari!

    • mm Kari says:

      Noel, you are absolutely correct. It goes back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Those of us from the developed world are focusing on self-actualization and it is hard to understand living in a position where meeting one’s physical needs is a daily task.

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