What's in a number? Why 1, 3 and 7 are my favourite numbers...
Updated: May 18
Numbers constitute the only universal language ~ Nathanael West
Throughout history and across many cultures, there are some numbers which have always had significance, which have been used to give things extra gravitas.
Pythagoras believed that numbers hold deep significance. My go-to numbers are 1, 3 and 7, and I come back to these numbers time and time again. I use them when I'm drafting a plan, making my to-do lists, or trying to give structure to an idea.
Every fortnight I send out an edition of The 1-3-7, an email series where I take 1 concept, and break it down into 3, then 7 steps or stages.
Why are these my favourite numbers? Here are some interesting facts about these numbers, for a little context as to why I use them...
FOCUS: Follow One Course of action Until Successful ~ Robert Kiyosaki
Everything starts at 1. One thought, one feeling, one idea... and then before you know it, that one entity is snowballing into something new...
One is the universal number of unity. It is associated with singularity and universality. It also connotes independence, positivity and ambition. One symbolises new beginnings. It's the number of initiation. In maths, 1 is only divisible by itself, which gives it added potency.
Sometimes when you're overworked or overwhelmed, it's good to sit down with pen and paper, and come up with the one main priority, one question, one concept you're working on now. Then the rest can follow.
omne trium perfectum.
This Latin proverb translates as 'everything that comes in three is perfect'. Pythagoras considered 3 to be the number of harmony, wisdom and understanding, and good fortune.
3 also signifies harmony in Kabbalah philosophy, while in Chinese tradition it is considered a lucky number.
3 is the smallest amount of data needed for there to be a pattern.
So is 3 really a magic number?
Three Facts about 3
3 is the number that reflects the passing of time: past/present/future, birth/life/death, beginning/middle/end.
The Rule of 3. A writing principle which outlines that your message will be more effectively delivered in sets of three. It is commonly applied in storytelling, poetry, and advertising. We are more likely to remember things that come in threes, because of the rhythm and brevity. Age old jokes (an Englishman, and Irishman, and a Scotsman...), plus many slogans, book and film titles work to this rule. And, an aesthetic take on the same concept – the Rule of Thirds.
Many religions feature symbolic usage of the number 3. Triple deities or trinities appear across faiths, such as in Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism.
Here are seven ways in which the number 7 appears as an important number across cultures:
Another of Pythagoras' favourite numbers – 7 was considered a special number by the philomath and his followers. This was because it combines 4, known as the physical number (as in the 4 elements) with 3, the spiritual number (representing harmony).
Of all the prime numbers, 7 is seen by some as 'the most prime', as out of all numbers 1 - 10, 7 is the only prime number which you cannot multiply within 10.
Psychologist George Miller, in his classic 1956 paper, discussed 'the magic number 7'. He proved that most people can retain roughly seven items of information in their short term memory. This is one reason why phone numbers (excluding area codes) are 7 digits long in many countries.
7 has been significant since ancient times: there were 7 wonders of the ancient world, which have since updated with the 7 wonders of the modern world.
There were (and still are) plenty of examples of 7 in the natural world too: there were 7 classical planets, (before the discovery of Pluto), we have 7 continents, 7 oceans... the list goes on.
Known as the 'God number' in ancient Egypt, articles of importance were often ordered into groups of multiples of 7, and at one point the number 7 could not be written because of its spiritual significance.
Similar to 3, 7 appears in all the major world religions. In Judeo-Christian tradition, it took 7 days to make the world (plus 7 deadly sins, 7 virtues and much more). In Islam; 7 heavens, and 7 walks are performed around Mecca. Hindus recognise 7 higher worlds and 7 underworlds, and in Buddhism, the newborn Buddha took a symbolic 7 first steps into the world.
One Three Seven
Last dose of trivia for you: whilst writing this article, I discovered that when put together as 137, this number holds even more significance, which any mathematicians or physicists reading will appreciate!
It is a number which spooks many physicists for its apparent arbitrariness yet how often it comes up as the result of complex abstract equations.
According to physicist Leon M Lederman, 137 'contains the crux of electromagnetism (the electron), relativity (the velocity of light), and quantum theory (Planck's constant). It would be less unsettling if the relationship between all these important concepts turned out to be one or three or maybe a multiple of pi. But 137?'
Creativity thrives within structure ~ Julia Cameron
These are just some of the many ways in which these numbers are considered significant.
Regardless of whether you believe these numbers actually hold any power, 1, 3 and 7 can be helpful numbers to use when you're putting together a list, plan, or a brief of some kind.
I always use these numbers as my structure for planning. This is why I've used these numbers for my email series, as a means to break down and present concepts I want to share.
If you're interested in checking out The 1-3-7, you can sign up here.