I had to take Freshmen Business Calculus in my final quarter at Georgia State University. Somehow this genius missed taking a core math class. I have to be honest—it started out as a disaster, but it turned out to be a life changing lesson. Let me explain.
I had not taken a math class in ten years and I had never even heard of a derivative. The professor was old and tenured, and she rambled on as if we knew what she was talking about. I failed the first test. I failed the second test. Fear fueled my performance-driven insecurities. I began to panic as I watched graduation slip from my grasp. I made an appointment with my professor who promptly told me it wasn’t her problem. “Perhaps you should just work more problems,” was her short advice.
There were four tests left, no hope of getting help, no time for a tutor during the day, and no hope of a curved grade (two smarty pants freshmen made sure of that), and no, there was not internet yet. I just couldn’t repeat this class and do this one more quarter. Ten years of long work days and long school nights found me sitting in despair at the Huddle House with no option but to try to teach myself. I read a chapter and worked the twenty problems at the end. I flipped to the back and found that I missed over half. I went back and worked all twenty. I missed five. I went back and worked all twenty. And so it went on until the wee hours of the morning.
I crawled out of bed exhausted from late-night problem solving, drug myself to work, caffeinated myself to school, and then headed to the Huddle House. Day after day, night after night, I worked through each chapter working every problem over and over until I could get them all right in one pass. At the end of each section, I went back and worked every problem from every chapter in the section until I could get them all right. Hundreds of passes at hundreds of problems.
The professor dropped a test, I aced the rest, and I graduated. My derivative skills faded (I couldn’t work a derivative to save your life!), but I learned one of the most important problem-solving techniques—never give up. It was a discipline at first, but over the years, it became a culture. Einstein, a much wiser man, penned these words, “It’s not that I am so smart, it is just that I stay with problems longer.”
You probably already knew this simple, decision-changing truth. If you didn’t, I suggest you work more problems. I promise you—never giving up is one of the three key cultures of incredible problem solving.
For more tips on how to apply this principle, to learn the other two cultures, or to talk to someone who won’t tell you it isn’t his problem, feel free to call me or write me.
Doug Burrier © 2017