Scott Flansburg has been known as The Human Calculator for decades. He discovered his unusual skill with numbers and math as a child. It turned into his career and made him somewhat of a celebrity in classrooms and on TV.
By his own account, Flansburg has performed for more than 2 million children around the world, showing them how to master math and succeed, especially in STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and math.
“Math is the most powerful language on planet Earth,” Flansburg said. “A lot of people tune out from that language. I make sure that people, especially young students, have a chance to connect with this powerful language. It not only teaches them math, which is great, but it develops patterns of logic in their brain … And then our teachers and our parents will be able to teach these kids higher math.”
Flansburg’s talent often landed him on television shows with stars like Regis Philbin and Oprah Winfrey. His performances introduced him to the rich and famous, building friendships and connections. He became an ambassador for World Maths Day, a board member of Memoriad, and similar organizations. Videos on YouTube show him outracing calculators – and with more decimal places. Now, at age 57, he’s building on his successful career to lead new ventures.
One venture is the National Counting Bee, a competition modeled after spelling bees. Flansburg lives much of the year in Arizona and started the Arizona Counting Bee in 2018. He intended to turn it into a national bee in 2020, but Covid-19 postponed his plan. This fall, he plans to host the National Counting Bee as a virtual event in his hometown of Herkimer.
Flansburg’s second venture focuses on Herkimer and its role in the start of basketball. He founded the Herkimer 9 Foundation to spread the story of how 19th Century Herkimer figures like Lambert Will and Henry M. Quackenbush contributed to basketball and influenced James Naismith, who is credited as the game’s inventor. The foundation has ambitious plans to build a 5,000-seat basketball arena to host tournaments, a museum about Herkimer’s role in basketball, a STEM and business center for children and adults, and re-development of other downtown buildings.
Leading these ventures, Flansburg says he’s seen the wisdom of being able to “lighten up” and to help others reach their potential.
Describe how the National Counting Bee will work.
It’s a simple counting contest. Each round is 15 seconds. In the first round, all the students have to count by three for 15 seconds as fast as they can. The catch is that nobody starts at zero. Every student gets a random starting number. When you get up on stage, we might have you start at seven. You say 10, 13, 16, 19, and so on – as many answers as you can in 15 seconds. And then you keep going higher. You count by four, count by five, and we see how high you can go.
We’re going to do the Herkimer Counting Bee on September 9. We’re going to do the National Counting Bee on November 9. We’ll use the Herkimer event on 9-9 to promote qualification bees for schools.
Tell me about growing up, early leadership roles and influences, and how you discovered your talent and interest in numbers.
I really was into sports. I was a pitcher in baseball and a point guard in basketball. I played every sport, badminton, football. I was all-league defensive end my senior year. I was totally into sports and being on teams. I guess you’re leading a team when you’re a pitcher.
Without a doubt, three coaches had influence in my life. There were Tom Findura, William Wood, and Gus Koch. They loved what they did, and they tried their best to maintain a bunch of teenagers. I really appreciated their honor – they had honor in everything they did.
It was in third grade that I discovered I could do numbers in my head very quickly. That was in my hometown of Herkimer, New York, where I was born and raised and where my dad (John) was born and raised.
As far as school, I was more of a renegade. I could crunch all these numbers and do things in my head, but nobody really knew what to do with me. So I didn’t really have any management of my best skill. It wasn’t managed, it wasn’t identified, there was no gifted program at school. They sent me to a couple of tests to see what other people thought of what I was doing, and they just didn’t come up with anything better for me to do. So I went into the regular curriculum and was never really pushed in any direction.
We moved to Middleville seven miles north of Herkimer when I was in high school. You have to have an English credit your senior year to graduate. My English teacher and I had a little personality conflict, and he gave me a final grade of 69 instead of 70. So I couldn’t graduate.
I went into the Air Force for six years. I worked in Japan for four years. That was an administrative role. And then I did computer programming for two years in Alabama at Gunter Air Force Station. (It’s now part of Maxwell Air Force Base near Montgomery, Alabama.) I was doing high level security computer programming. It was exciting.
When I got out of the Air Force, I started what became The Human Calculator business. That’s when I had to take the lead and jump off a cliff. I could do all these things in my head, but I really wasn’t teaching anybody how to do anything. Now I’ve become a leader of how to teach mental math and number strategies around the world. I’ve enjoyed that responsibility, and it’s given me so many opportunities.
It sounds like there was a turning point when you left the Air Force. Can you tell me about it?
I love this question, because there is a guy down in Montgomery, Alabama, named Don Davenport. He was a businessman – advertising, real estate, just an overall business guy and brilliant dude.
A school in the area heard about what I could do with numbers in my head and reached out to me. I took an afternoon off to do the show at the school. It couldn’t have gone any better, and I started getting requests from other schools in the area. I went to my Air Force supervisor and said, Hey, you know, I’d really like to do these for the students.
He’s like: No.
That was it. And so I thought, OK, well, I’m going to get out of the Air Force to start this thing.
Don Davenport heard about me, took me to lunch, and I demonstrated what I could do. He goes: Scott, let me think about this.
He called me a week later, and he had a whole plan. He said: You know, it’s going to be a long road. It’s not going to happen in one year or even five years, but this can be a big idea.
I hadn’t been in the marketing or advertising space or anything like that. He saw the value that I could bring to not only children in schools, but potentially sponsors.
He saw a number of angles. One was to perform. I worked out a show where I could entertain a group of people, whether they were 5 years old or 50 years old, and entertain them with numbers.
I was so lucky to find Don Davenport, who, to this day, is one of my dearest friends. Both of us laugh about that first lunch in 1988, where I had no clue. It blossomed from there and naturally turned into where I had a book with Harper Collins and some videos. I became an edutainer – an educational entertainer. It captures more of what I do. I started doing corporate events. People like Tony Robbins had me perform at his events around the world. I just kept getting invited to more and more stages.
When I got out of the Air Force, I went to visit my little sister, Cindy, who was stationed in the Air Force in Arizona. I’ve lived there ever since, though I spend about half the year here in Herkimer now.
Alice Cooper (the musician) lives in Arizona, and we became good friends in 1994. I performed in one of his daughter’s schools. He and his wife, Sheryl, sat in the back of the room. After the show, Alice said Scott, that’s amazing. Then he said: Let me show you a couple of things you can do to make your show even better.
He’s a true showman, so I listened. I have a Guinness world record where I count by multiples of a number really fast. So if you ask me to count by 32, I just go 32, 64, 96, 128 as fast as I can.
I just went so fast that Alice could see most of the kids in the room were like, I don’t even know what he’s doing. What’s going on there?
Alice goes: Here’s how you do it. Do the first five numbers slowly to where people can keep up with you pretty easy. And they’re like, Oh, you know, this is OK. Then do five medium, then do five fast, then you go crazy.
It revolutionized my show and the reaction of children. He’s a mentor, a dear friend. So yeah, that turning point turned into a dream come true.
What’s your advice for someone to lead effectively, especially someone who aspires to take on leadership responsibilities?
I just did a talk about it: Lighten up.
As The Human Calculator, I’ve never felt like I worked a single day for 32 years. It’s natural. It’s fun. It’s easy. I was blessed.
Now taking on this Herkimer 9 initiative and being a CEO of new and different businesses and all these different things, I was feeling overwhelmed a little bit about how much work is involved. I was glad to have a team with me to help make this happen. I’m learning a lot as I go, but I’ve never had to serve in these roles. I found a COO right away, Brion Carroll, who has done what we’re talking about for the past 30 years in several different realms.
There are the things that I can do really well, and then there are things he does really well. It has created a balance for us to move the Herkimer 9 initiative forward. If it was just me, I don’t think we’d be there because I don’t have the skillset to make this real. It takes somebody as gifted as Brion to help make it reality.
So what I’m learning is: Lighten up. This is a fun project. This is a dream come true for a guy to go out in the world and do what I do for 30 years and come back to my hometown to help make it better and put it on the map with something historical. I’ll dedicate the rest of my life to this. So, at age 55, this was a pivot, and I’m learning a lot.
What qualities do you see in good leadership and leaders you admire?
Being able to understand each person individually, where they’re coming from, where they’re trying to go, and how that all fits.
If you bring a person on board, you gotta be able to tune into them and give them a chance to reach their potential.
I use this word a lot: Honor. For the things that are going wrong in the world, if all you did was insert honor, it would make the difference.
I want to be honorable to the board of our foundation and our team. I want to have honor with the developers and the politicians and the different officials that we have to work with. It seems like this idea of honoring those people and the potential to help with this project has propelled this project as much as anything else. Give people room to do their best.
So I would stick with honor, integrity, truth.
What attributes do you see in poor leaders?
Well, what scares me is that I don’t think they see poor leadership in themselves. So I’m conscious of that because I don’t want to be that guy. I know we can always get better every day.
What do you hope will be the result of what you’re doing in Herkimer now?
It would be an amazing day to wake up in Herkimer where there is a 5,000-seat arena called the Lambert Will Fieldhouse and Event Center along Main Street to celebrate Lambert Will and his contribution to the innovation of basketball, and to host tournaments for all ages – basketball tournaments, volleyball tournaments, cheerleading, and all these different things in a place with all this history.
And across the street is a 150-year-old courthouse that we’re transforming into a museum that is going to tell and show the evidence about Herkimer’s contribution to the innovation of the game of basketball and the full story from the Herkimer perspective.
Henry M. Quackenbush was the president of the YMCA where all the innovation of basketball happened in Herkimer. He invented the nutcracker, the extension ladder, the air pistol and on and on – over 50 patents or inventions. He built a factory in Herkimer. The Quackenbush factory is 150 years old. It’s going to be restored into a STEAM learning center on the first floor and a STEAM learning center for adults on the second floor. (STEAM incorporates arts into STEM fields.) An incubator, a business development center, will be on the third floor to capture the essence of the innovation that came from that building.
That block also has the Palmer House Hotel, which is from 1889. We’re restoring it as a boutique hotel to go along with the theme of this basketball experience we’re creating in Herkimer.
Outside the event center, we’re going to have the largest basketball in the world. We’re going to ask basketball stars to come to Herkimer for exhibition games to promote the game of basketball and to autograph the largest basketball in the world. We want to make it a fun place to come, like Cooperstown is for baseball.
I hear these ideas you’re ticking off and I read news stories about them online, and I think it’s going to take money. You’ve been successful in your career, but I don’t know how wealthy you are and if you can personally pay for all this development.
My wealth is off by a couple of zeros for what this has turned into. (Laughter) I thought it was going to be a few hundred thousand dollars to build a little YMCA and put up a net and a rim. So it’s turned into a $40 to $50 million project.
The advantage we have is that Herkimer is in an Opportunity Zone. It’s a tax strategy that people are employing. And so we see enthusiasm from investors who see the potential to create a village for hosting basketball-themed events with a connection to the history. The county has offered to put some money in to help with the events center.
We have contributions coming from organizations, personal donations to our charity, and we’re going in phases. We don’t need all the money up front. We’re taking care of each phase at a time. It’s a big idea, but we can get there one step at a time. Our board has been very supportive. We had to get some properties under control of Herkimer 9, and that’s what the developers are active in. We have a lot of work to do.
To top it off, we bought a franchise from the American Basketball Association. The Lambert Will Fieldhouse and Event Center will be the eventual home to a basketball team for the ABA. Alice Cooper came up with the name. He knows the backstory about Herkimer and basketball. He goes: You got to call them the Herkimer Originals.
The weekly “Conversation on Leadership” features Q&A interviews about leadership, success, and innovation. The conversations are condensed and edited. To suggest a leader for a Conversation, contact Stan Linhorst at StanLinhorst@gmail.com. Last week featured Nick Nickitas, CEO of the grocery-shopping service Rosie. He advises leaders to talk about “what we want to achieve together.”