I can't do it

7 September 2011

When I was young I remember, at times, being absolutely frustrated because I thought I couldn't do something like memorizing vocabulary words or remembering multiplication tables. My parents made me practice and practice, until I got it.

A few years later I was a freshman in high school taking Geometry for the first time. The first night that we had homework assigned I sat down to start working on it and after a few moments I gave up saying, "I can't do this, its too hard."

My parents, hearing me complain about how hard it was, sat me down and said something to effect of: "just relax, I'll bet if you just try you can figure out."

My geometry teacher would later tell my parents that when he asked a question and no one else had the answer he would always hear me in the back of the room mumble the right one.

What made me go from completely not understanding Geometry to easily grasping every concept in the subject my teacher could throw at me? Sitting down, relaxing, wrapping my mind around it, and knowing I was smart enough to figure it out.

Don't get me wrong a lot of hard work also went into it, but thats easy once you learn to just sit down and get in that mental state of, "I am going to figure this out if it is the last thing I do." Hell, thats one of the most rewarding things I can think of: figuring something out on your own that was previously shrouded in mystery and gaining that understanding.

Sometimes it takes awhile to wrap your mind around topics more complex than Geometry, but it is usually just a matter of what Fred Wilson calls "Subconscious Information Processing." Subconscious Information Processing in this context means that the more time you allow your mind to think about something by coming back to a problem in small chunks of time, the easier the problem is to solve when you actually sit down to do it.

You have to willing to accept failure. You have to be able to realize you are wrong and course correct. Sometimes you are going to not be right when you trying to gain an understanding and you'll have to start again. Usually you won't have to start at square one, but somewhere in between square one and where you are currently. Usually, after this first attempt is where most people give up, they say: "Well, I tried and I couldn't figure it out. What do I do?"

A problem solver, on the other hand, is naturally curious about why it didn't work out the first time. They will analyze what they did and form another hypothesis about how to go about something, and then do it.

This is how our world works. This is how Science works. Science is humble. Science sees an unexplained bit of data and says "Okay, our previous theory was wrong. Can we improve upon our current theory or come up with a new theory that explains everything?" This is essentially the Scientific Method applied to everyday life.

This is why I cannot stand people who say "I can't do it," after only glancing at a problem. Where is your curiosity? Where is your drive for understanding? Don't you want to know why you failed? Are those other people that understand this actually smarter than you? Or did they just have the patience, the curiosity, and desire for understanding?

What an awesome and forgiving world we live in where being wrong is okay. Not just okay, but encouraged and a prerequisite for understanding.