How to Get Unstuck Using This Little Math Secret

Image by [Gerd Altmann]( from [Pixabay]( by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

The best thing high school math taught me about life

I cried a lot that day. I scored ten points less on a Math test than I expected. The feeling of not being able to perform to the expectations of my family and teachers was overwhelming. And there I sat, on my desk, looking out of the window, trying to hide my tears while my teacher continued with her lecture.

I cared a lot about what my classmates thought about me. What my parents and teachers thought about me. And this fear of judgment, criticism, and failure at Math stuck with me for two years.

After trying tons of different teachers, my mother finally got me one who, she thought, would help me score better. The problem was not my work ethic as a student — the problem was the fear of my inability to solve problems.

After a trial class with my new teacher, I was disappointed. I told my parents that I don’t want him to teach me. But my father disagreed. He didn’t think I was understanding enough to judge the caliber of my teacher.

And he was right. What did I know? I was a small kid with big-time math phobia.

Long story short, due to the efforts of my teacher, I achieved perfect scores in most of my math tests for all my high school years. I also ended up in the top college in the country.

But more than any of that, he shifted my perspective on problem-solving. He gave me a tool that I’d remember for the rest of my life.

Whenever I said, “I’m trying to solve this problem but the answer just won’t show up”, he’d say in the most Yoda-like expression,

“Do or do not. There is no try”

The funny thing is, he too didn’t know the answer. He had a full-time job as an engineer. He did not know the answers to all the textbook questions like most professors.

Still, he solved all questions like clockwork. Seeing him work through the problem was amazing.

He told me his secret, which he religiously applied:

“Whenever you’re stuck on a question, don’t keep staring at it. Pick up the pen and do something.”

I took this to heart.

If the equation said, x = 5, I’d just write x = 10/2. If it said x = tan(y) I’d just write x = sin(y)/cos(y).

I always did something. Even if it was stupid. And it worked.

The answer always shows up if you keep working on it. It gave me the confidence I so desperately needed to face all my tests. I was no longer afraid of new questions.

Even if I couldn’t solve it, I’d fill pages upon pages trying different methods. And somewhere in that mess, was the answer.

Pick up the Pen

This is not only a lesson in high school math but also one in motivation.

Most of us think of motivation as a light bulb. When it lights up, you have all the tools to get the job done. But when it’s off, you’re off.

It doesn’t work that way. You’ve to go and switch on the light bulb yourself. In other words, the action is not only the effect of motivation but also the cause of it.

Motivation → Action → Motivation → Action → ∞

You just need to do something. Anything. Without it, you cannot build the momentum you need to skyrocket your growth. But once you can ride the waves of momentum, everything becomes easier.

Identify the smallest thing you need to do to take one step towards your goals.

IBM’s salesforce was one of the most dominant ones in the country. But ironically, their sales teams had the lowest quotas. How does this add up?

Turns out, it’s a great psychological trick. Since the quotas were so low, the sales guys weren’t afraid to pick up the phone and start dialing. Thus, they continuously broke past their quotas.

There are two important lessons here:

  • The low quotas took away the fear of not reaching their goals

  • The feeling of beating their quotas and rising higher was great. If I tell you to write five hundred words and you write a thousand, you’ll be jacked up! But in the same case, if I told you to write two thousand words, you’ll be disappointed with yourself.

The underlying goal is simple — get yourself to do something. Score the small wins and before you know, you’ll be off to the big leagues.

Tim Ferris has a simple rule — “Two crappy pages per day.” Then how does he write books more than five hundred pages long? Same principle. Small goals, small wins, big results.

When you follow this principle, what you produce feels unimportant. If my goal is to write a thousand crappy words, I don’t care how this post performs on Medium. All I care about is I wrote it. And once I do, I’ll forget about it. On to the next article, the next email and the next day.

You feel free to fail. There are no glamourous goals to achieve. The only goal is to show up, do the work, and go back. Repeat this enough times, and you won’t look for motivation because the waves of momentum will take you on a cruise.

“What Should I Do Now?”

I know what you’re thinking. It’s not great. It’s not a sexy trick. Perhaps, you’ve heard it before. And like the previous time, you’ll close the tab and go on with your life, forgetting about this rule.

Don’t make the mistake.

My goal with all my articles is to answer this one question for you — “What should I do now?”

And here’s what you do. Define a small action for what you want to do.

Want to lose weight? Go for a ten-minute walk.

Want to write a book? Write ten sentences.

Want a new network? Reach out to one person.

Want to set up a website? Just design the header.

Want to start a business? Call one prospective customer.

If you don’t do this, your car is stuck in the driveway. All you have to do is get out. Yes, you’ll have to change course. You’ll have to slow down, speed up, or take a pause.

But once you’re out of the driveway, it wouldn’t matter. Once you’re unstuck, nothing can hold you back.

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Written on August 11, 2020