On Excellence

Yesterday I was having a conversation with a few of my graduating students about their post-secondary plans. It came up that many students are making choices about which schools to attend and which courses to take based on how easy they think it will be to get high grades, so that they have a better chance of getting into programs like medical school. This is not something I was surprised to hear, as I’ve heard it many times. There are schools in our province that have the reputation for being “hard” and those that are reputed to be easy. Go to an easy school, get high grades, then coast into med school.

My question has always been “Ok, and then what?”

The answer?

“Then I’ll be a doctor.”

That’s when I always want to know what kind of doctor they plan to be. I don’t mean what area of medicine – I mean what level of competence. Very very few students say they want to be mediocre. They all plan on being excellent. I can’t help but wonder how they intend to make that true. I have questions.

What is the path to true excellence? Is it an easy one? Is it possible to simply do whatever it takes to get there as easily and quickly as possible, and then once there reap the rewards? Many think so, but it’s not true.

The path to excellence does not exist. Excellence is not a place you go. Excellence is a mode of travel.

So while there may be no path to excellence, there is a path of excellence. There is also the easy path, and they are very much not the same journey. If you want to be excellent – if you want to live on that path, then you need to work at it. It’s hard, and there are way more people choosing the easy path, but excellence is the most rewarding path there is. Yet so many people spend so much effort trying to look excellent instead of actually working to be excellent. And this is a source of great stress. When everyone around you appears to be perfect, and you know you are not, it can make you crazy. So students do what they can to appear perfect. Taking easy courses, engaging in academic dishonesty (that’s modern speak for cheating for you old-fashioned folk out there) and essentially making diligence and discipline the last resort.

My students say, “But if I take harder courses I’ll get lower marks and I won’t get into med school.”

I say, ‘Not true! Take hard courses and get high marks! It can be done. There are people doing it. Be one of those people. Be the person everyone is afraid they have to compete with instead of the person taking easy courses to compete.”

If you choose to take the easy path to get where you want to go, then once you think you’ve made it you will discover that there’s no way to leap the chasm to the path of excellence. You will be a walking fraud.

On the other hand, if you dedicate every step to being excellent then when you become a doctor (or whatever else it is that you want to be), you will be an amazing one. Having dedicated yourself to the path of excellence you won’t have to pretend to be excellent, because you will be the paradigm of it.

My message is simple. If you want to look excellent, then be excellent. Maintaining a shell of excellence draped over a mediocre core will erode your spirit. Be bulletproof. Don’t look excellent. Be excellent. It’s way less stressful.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

The Death of the Mistake

(Disclaimer: NOT ALL PARENTS are guilty of what I describe in this blog, so please don’t take it personally. But many are. Far too many.)

I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life. I imagine you have too. Some of mine are pretty indelible for me.

Like the time my friend and I were playing with fire (literally) and almost burned down a hotel. We were scared to death and actually grateful we got caught.

Like the time I decided I could get through that intersection before the car coming from the left got there. Result? One totaled car that wasn’t even mine. It was my girlfriend’s car.

Like the time I thought I could get away without studying for my final exam in STAT 331 and still scrape a credit in the course. I earned a 42. I asked the prof to remark the exam which he did. The mark went down.

I didn’t like any of these or the countless others when they happened. Actually they felt pretty miserable. Yet each one has had an impact on decisions I made later in life and each one of those failures thus resulted in bigger successes. This is not a revolutionary concept. The phrase “we learn from our mistakes” is not new. But have you ever considered exactly how true it is? We aren’t born with an abundance of knowledge. In fact we are born with almost none. We know how to do things like breathe and cry and fill diapers, but we can’t even control those actions much. At first, all the knowledge we accrue comes from our innate curiosity and willingness to take risks. What’s funny is that as babies we don’t even know we are risking anything. We’re just really curious. Watch all the stuff a baby is willing to put in his mouth. You’ll know exactly what I mean. So babies try things and sometimes the result is pleasant or satisfying and other times its not. Each experience whether success or failure goes into the data bank and both guides subsequent experiments and imbues us with confidence regarding our ability to reproduce successes. In this way it is completely correct to categorize both “success” and “failure” as positive outcomes. And yet we have attached so much negativity to the word failure that it has become a thing to be reviled and feared … avoided at all costs. Which is a true tragedy, because success in the absence of failure is yin without yang.

As time passes the culture we grow up in imposes a formalized education, mainly because there is value placed on certain nuggets of knowledge. This happens in the form of school. And that’s where I come in.

Sort of. I teach high school so I guess I come in about 10 years later. After 10 years of a system which has sadly killed the mistake. Kids are no longer encouraged or allowed to experiment. They have to “get it right” the first time. Many parents spend insane amounts of energy making sure their children never experience failure, defeat or mistakes. A friend of mine calls this phenomenon “the snowplow parenting” model. The parents walk ahead of the child, plowing all obstacles out of the way, frantically making sure that no failure is ever experienced. As the child grows and the potential obstacles increase, parents run themselves ragged continuing to pave a smooth way. The effect this has on the kids is incredibly frightening. The child grows up not ever really experiencing a failure, but watching parents become more and more neurotic making sure this “failure monster” never has a chance to get near their kid. It’s a doubly-bad edged sword. First, no failure is ever experienced so there is no chance for the best kind of learning and second, the children pick up on this deep fear of failure and when they find themselves faced with the potential for a mistake they freeze in terror at the possibility. In short, they are simply not equipped to deal with anything but a smooth road, and lack the understanding and confidence that comes from having failed.

So what I see in my math class is kids who are petrified of assessment. I have seen kids cry when they earn a mark in the 90’s on a test. Worse, I’ve seen kids with marks in the 90’s crying when they come in to write a test because of how afraid they are that they might make a mistake. And I’ve had to defend marks to parents who insist to me not that their child earned a higher mark, but that their child needs the higher mark. In grade 9. A grade that no university or college even remotely cares about. A grade for which no scholarships are awarded. Yet the child needs the higher mark. Lest they experience failure.

This phenomenon may actually be the single biggest threat to our culture. Thanks to Snowplow Parents we are raising a generation of kids who have never had a chance to experiment and fail. Never a chance to pursue curiosity, which is the spark for innovation. So what we get is anxiety-ridden underperformers with huge self-esteem issues, fostered by parents who have made it clear that the child is not capable of fending for themselves and thus needs the parents’ involvement every step of the way.

Parents, please. Take a step back. Watch them do it themselves. Watch them fail and celebrate the failure. Mistakes are critical for evolution. Let’s bring them back. Let’s start the Mistake Revival.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

Parenting From the Bow

I have two kids, and it is definitely true that along with my wife, there is nothing in this world more important to me than them. At the time of writing, my son is 15 and my daughter is 11. So between my wife and I we have a total of 26 child-years of parenting experience (plus 4 dog-years and 9 budgie-years). This hardly qualifies me as an authority on the subject, but I do think about the responsibilities of parenthood in general and fatherhood specifically quite often, and I thought I’d put some of my thoughts into pixels today. I will borrow a little from the speech I made at my son’s Bar Mitzvah, and I will also use some quotes from an early twentieth-century philosopher named Kahlil Gibran as the springboard for my take on things. As it turns out, Gibran and I agree on very many things when it comes to kids.

Children are the mirror to your soul.
~ Kahlil Gibran

That sentiment is the simplest way I can express what my children mean to me. When I look in a mirror, I see my face. When I look at my children, I see my soul.

When my wife Marla and I discovered we were going to have our first child, we started doing what I imagine just about every couple does at that time. We started planning how we were going to make our child into the most perfect human the world has seen. We were going to make sure he was the smartest, most charismatic, most athletic, and most well-rounded person imaginable. We were going to mold him into a superstar. We read all the books, watched all the videos, and attended all the seminars. We bought all the best stuff. We were ready.

Then he was born. And then we learned how it really works.

The truth is, you don’t get to tell your children who they are going to be. That’s not at all what raising a child is. It turns out that what raising a child is really about is paying attention as they tell you who they already are. And if you’re wise, and lucky, you find out that who they are is the exact kind of person you love to know, and to be around. And that’s exactly who my children are. They are the best parts of myself, and of Marla, and a good dose of all those who came before us in the ancestral tree. They are the soul of all of us.

Before our son was born, Marla and I thought we could make him into the perfect person, but we were wrong. He’s not the perfect person. He’s better than that. He is the perfect him. And our daughter, who could not be more different than our son? You guessed it — she is the perfect her.

As a teacher I am fortunate to work with kids all the time. I spend a large part of my days with other people’s children, and it is absolutely the best part of my job. When people find out I teach high school they always ask me what I teach, and my response is always “kids”. They laugh as though it’s a joke but it’s really not. Because while I love math, and that is my subject area, teaching any subject in high school is really about helping kids grow into adults. So I really pay attention to my students, because I find I have so much to learn from them about who they are, and then I in turn can help them grow into the best version of themselves possible.

Of course I know that it is their parents who are primarily responsible for that, and a lot of what I have learned about parenting comes from looking at my students and then looking at their parents. And I can tell you this with 100% certainty: The students I have taught with the highest self-esteem and who are the most comfortable with who they are are the ones whose parents allow them to be who they are. Conversely the ones with the most issues regarding self-worth and academic performance are the ones whose parents are working extremely hard to turn them into something they are not. Imagine growing up in an environment where your most loved and trusted people — your parents — are constantly working to steer you away from who you are and what you want. As a math teacher, I see it most commonly in kids who are being forced to stay in the maths and sciences because their parents have decided that there is no future in the arts. However it goes beyond that. There are parents who seem determined to shape their kids into something different than what they are. It’s sad. As parents we need to see our children the way sculptors see their sculptures — as something that already exists in the rough, and our job is to help reveal that magic to the world.

Here’s another Gibran quote that I love:

Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you. You may give them your love but not your thoughts. For they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their souls, For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams. You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you. For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday. You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth. The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far. Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness; For even as he loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.
~ Kahlil Gibran

Even if you are not religious the quote is wise. What Gibran is saying is that once a child is born, they are their own person. Children do not belong to anyone but themselves, and the future is theirs to make. Parents are the stable bow. We are the home base and the place our children come from, but the journey they are on, where they go in life, belongs entirely to them. We can guide and encourage, but we can not, nor should we, change the flight of the arrow once it is loosed from the bow.

When it comes to my children, Gibran was right. I don’t seek to make them like me. I strive to be like them.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

A Short Lesson on Credit Cards

Many people who use credit cards understand how they work, but many don’t. I was teaching a class on this the other day and a student of mine pointed out that she thinks her parents don’t know about what I was teaching, and suggested I write an article. So I thought, why not? The math can get a little confusing, so I’ll avoid most of it and just give the answers. Keep in mind this is a lesson I do with high school students, so I ask your forgiveness in advance if you read the whole article and never encounter anything you didn’t already know.

First things first. If you pay your credit card balance in full before the due date each month, you win. You are not paying any interest at all. So for example if you bought something at the beginning of your credit card cycle for $1000, the bank actually lent you the money to buy it without charging any interest, meaning you have owned something for a month before you had to pay for it, and it was at the complete and total expense of the bank. Not bad. In fact, if you really want to be clever, you can buy a $5000 television, charge it to your credit card, go from the store to the bank and deposit $5000 into a one-month GIC, and when the credit card statement comes withdraw the $5000 from the GIC to pay the bill. The GIC will have earned interest for a month so in effect that bank will have paid you to watch their television for a month. Nobody does this really, but in theory there’s no reason why you could not. Pretty cool.

So for people paying their balance in full each month, more power to you! Especially if you have some sort of points earning system on your card, which I’ll get to shortly.

Now for those who do not pay the balance in full, a short lesson on what happens. First, I’ll explain what the banks do about the interest.

As I said before, when people pay the balance in full, interest is never charged. But that doesn’t mean it’s not calculated — it really means it’s forgiven. So a purchase made 20 days before the statement date does accrue 20 days of interest (accrue means interest is added on), but it’s forgiven if the balance is paid in full. On the other hand, if the balance is not paid, that 20 days of interest kicks in.

I’ll use an example showing a just a few purchases. Here goes.

Assumptions:

  • No balance at beginning of cycle
  • Credit card interest rate is 20% (most are slightly below this as I type, but not significantly so — contrast that with current prime lending rate in Canada which is 1%!)
  • Cycle runs from January 1st to February 1st
  • Minimum payment due to credit card company is 3% of the outstanding balance (this is normal).

Purchases:

  • January 1: $2500 on a 54-inch LCD 3D TV. Great deal post holiday.
  • January 5: $400 on 3D DVD’s. Turns out watching regular TV on a 3D TV is a tad boring.
  • January 7: $200 in snacks from Costco for the Avatar party you’re hosting at your place.
  • January 10: $50 for a new pair of 3D glasses — turns out you can’t drop them in a punch bowl and expect them to still work.
  • January 18: $300 for a new XBox 360 gaming system because you ran out of 3D movies to watch.
  • January 25: $200 for new games because it turns out the one your XBox came with kind of sucks.
  • January 31: $150 for cool Halo controller, with helmet.

For the record, you spent $3800 using your credit card. Now suppose the minimum payment is $114, which is 3% of your outstanding balance (this is normal), and that’s all you pay. The credit card company requires that you make this minimum payment to avoid penalties, but they don’t really explain about how you’ll be penalized anyway with interest.

Here’s what happens. Your balance the moment the $114 is received by the bank will not be reduced to $3800 — $114 = $3686 as you might expect. In fact what will happen is your balance will immediately have $66.49 in interest added to it.

So your actual new balance will be $3752.49.

But it gets worse. You see what happens is that all your purchases starting with the very first one were interest-forgiven until the moment you didn’t pay the full amount. At that point what the bank does is they subtract your payment from the earliest purchases (in this case from the $2500 TV purchase), then they convert the 20% interest to a daily rate, which works out to about 0.07% per day, and calculate interest on each purchase using the number of days since the purchase was made. And the clock keeps ticking, so that by the end of the next statement period, which would be March 1, another 28 days of interest accrues on the balances. That would be another $71.03 bringing your balance up to $3823.51, not including any purchases you make in February. And in case you didn’t notice, your $114 payment has been completely eaten up by interest after only 28 days, plus you now owe $23.51 more than you spent. That’s after only 1 month and having made a payment of $114!

It gets even worse, if you can believe it. The purchases you make in February will be interest forgiven until March 1, however because you have old purchases from January on your account now, any payments you make on March 1 are applied to those purchases first, starting with the oldest, and that means that your February purchases are that much harder to repay in full, which in turn means that they will start accruing interest the same way your January purchases did the moment they are not paid in full.

When you consider that on March 1 you have to pay for all your January purchases, plus an extra $23.51 before you even have a chance at paying for your February purchases, you can see how difficult this gets, and how quickly it can spiral out of control.

OK. So lesson number one is always pay your balance in full. It’s the most important lesson about credit cards. So important that if you can’t do it, you should not be using your credit card at all. You will quickly max out your credit limit and then lose the ability to use it for purchases, and simultaneously be saddled with huge interest charges that you’ll have to manage.

At this point many people say that credit cards are evil and they should not be used. “If you don’t have the money to pay for something don’t buy it” they say. “Always use cash” is the motto for these people. They make a lot of sense, but they are wrong. Further, not only are they wrong, they are for the most part overpaying for their purchases!

You’ll have to allow me to explain that part. It seems to make no sense at all.

So here’s the deal. When a merchant decides they want to accept credit cards as a form of payment, they need to get a merchant account. They’ll generally rent a terminal from the bank to process the transactions. They also pay a merchant fee to the bank for every transaction, generally 2%-4% of the sale price, which means that they earn less on purchases paid for by credit card than they do on purchases paid for in cash. At the end of a day of business the bank will deposit the total for the credit card transactions less the merchant fees into the account of the merchant. So it costs the merchant money to accept your credit card, which is money they will do their best to build in to the price of the goods and services they provide, to the extent that they can without overpricing.

For most merchants this is a cost of doing business and though they may not like it they accept it for what it is because many customers will shop elsewhere if they can’t pay by credit card. It’s also part of the reason why some stores offer a discount if you pay in cash. Sure cash is harder to trace, but beyond that a merchant can afford to sell a product for cash at a lower price and still make the same profit or even slightly more if the offered discount is less than the merchant fee. So there’s a slight over-payment when you pay full price in cash for something that you could have used a credit card for, but it’s not really fair to categorize it that way since if you pay with a credit card that over-payment disappears and in either case you have received a good or service for the same price. So that’s actually not what I mean when I say people who pay in cash are overpaying.

The over-payment I’m referring to actually has nothing to do with the merchant. It’s really the points on the credit card that you miss out on when you pay in cash. Most credit cards today have some sort of points system attached to them whereby you accumulate points through purchases and then redeem them for merchandise or travel. For example earlier this year I paid for a return flight to Kelowna, BC and 4 nights in a hotel all with points.

Stop and think about that. The airline didn’t give the trip away. They can’t afford to. The hotel didn’t rent the room for free for the same reason. Both the airline and the hotel were paid by Visa. But where did Visa get the money? Not from me — I pay my statement in full so I never pay interest, which means Visa pays for my stuff then I give them the money back at the end of the month so they break even. Aside from my annual fee of $60, Visa is not making profit directly from me. The answer to where they get the money is the interest of other credit card holders mostly, merchant fees and annual cardholder fees. That’s $60 annually from me.

So what? Well let’s say in a year I spend $100,000 on Visa on some list of goods and services, and someone else spends $100,000 in cash on the same list. At the end of the year my wife and I go to Vegas and stay at The Venetian, all on points, a trip which would cost around $3000 in airfare and hotel. Mr. Cash does the same, but pays cash. They have now spent about $103,000 or so, but I’m at $100,060 (remember to add my annual fee) and we’ve gotten the exact same stuff. If you think a little more about it, if I spent $100,000 on Visa then the merchants where I shopped paid 3%, or $3000 of that in merchant fees. There’s the money for the trip. But the important part is Mr. Cash spent $103,000, and I spent $100,060

See? The cash payer overpaid.

Of course, if you don’t pay your balance in full each month all bets are off. In that case you would be paying for my trip to Vegas. And nice as that is, I don’t expect you to do it.

The moral is, put everything you possibly can on a credit card with a points system. Pay all your bills with it. Buy a car with it! But always always always pay your balance in full (if you can’t pay your balance don’t buy the stuff). You’ll be surprised at the “free” things you get and none of those things would come to you if you pay in cash.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

Sometimes, the Door Is Down the Hall

Today my blog is about one of the most important things I’ve learned as a teacher, and specifically as a teacher of math. I’m going to start with a story about a kid I tutored for a while, many years ago.

When I was younger and just starting to realize I had a passion for math and for teaching, I firmly believed that anyone could understand math and be good at it. Some people took to it more readily than others, but I was certain that given enough time and effort, every single person could excel.

Then I met Lief (not his real name).

Lief came to me when he was in grade 6, and our first tutoring session was about math questions involving time. The question we worked on was something like “Harry leaves home at 12:05 pm and arrives at his destination at 1:30 pm the same day. How long did the trip take?”. Lief was really struggling with the question, but I knew that I could explain it in such a way that he would not only be able to determine the correct answer he would fully understand how we did it and be able to answer many more similar questions. As my students would say, I have mad skillz when it comes to explaining math.

Boy was I wrong. I spent an hour with Lief and I used all my powers of teaching and explaining to no avail. Strewn about us were diagrams, pictures of clocks, number lines, a watch and even part of a model Volkswagen Beetle (don’t ask me why, I don’t remember). Lief just could not understand what the question was asking and why the answer was 1 hour 25 minutes (see how I threw that in there so you’d know if you got it right? 😉 ). I learned a valuable lesson that day.

Some people just aren’t wired for math. And that’s totally OK of course. Contrary to popular opinion, math is not a critical life skill. Aside from people like me I can’t think of a single person that needs to be able to complete the square of a quadratic function given in standard form in order to determine the coordinates of the vertex of the parabola. Proof? You most likely have no idea what in the world I was talking about there and I bet you do just fine. I know at least that you own some sort of electronic device capable of connecting you to the internet. That says something.

So why is this blog titled “Sometimes, the Door Is Down the Hall”? What am I talking about, you ask? Well you wouldn’t be the first to ask that. Allow me to explain.

Where I live in Ontario, Canada, students attend high school for four years — grades 9 through 12. During that time, in order to be awarded their high school diploma, they must successfully earn three credits in math. For most students, that means a grade 9, grade 10 and grade 11 credit, though some do grade 9, grade 10 and grade 12. It means that math is optional in grade 12, if all you want is a high school diploma. If you want a post-secondary education however, like college or university, you will most often need to take math in all four years of high school, and also be sure to choose the right math courses for your intended post-secondary program.

At each grade, there are choices of which math course to take. There are different paths and they don’t all lead to the same place. For example, a student who intends to study math or science at university will take what’s called “Academic” math in grades 9 and 10, then “University prep” math in grades 11 and 12. Conversely a student who intends to go to college to learn a trade will likely take “Applied” math in grades 9 and 10, then “College prep” math in grade 11 and maybe also in grade 12, depending on the requirements of the college program. Some students take what’s called “Essentials” math in grades 9 and 10, then “Workplace” math in either grade 11 or grade 12. These students are either not planning to attend a post-secondary institution or else are planning to go into a field that has nothing at all to do with math.

Phew! So that was kind of boring to read, right? But if you read it you may have noticed the glaring flaw in the system. A student must decide on a career path in grade 9. When they are 14 years old. Actually they have to pick their grade 9 courses when they are still in grade 8, so they and their parents have to make the call when the student is 13 years old. Who the heck knows what they want to do with their lives at the age of 13? When I was 13 I wanted to look at girls, play video games, eat steak as an afternoon snack and look at girls. And then look at girls. I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do with my life. As a matter of fact now, at 43, I still don’t know what I want to do with my life (except for the looking at women part — I still do that and am lucky to have a wife that is exceptionally fun to look at). But I do know that I am happy with what I’m doing right now. Maybe that will change, maybe it won’t. But the key to my happiness is that I am doing something I am good at and that in turn makes me good at it. Read that last sentence a few times. It seems confusing but it isn’t. Try doing something you suck at for a long time. Keep telling yourself that you’ll get better if that makes it seem worthwhile. But I think you’ll find out that when you’re not good at something you are miserable doing it and then you are not good at it.

So how does this manifest in high school? Well it may seem obvious that since very few 13 year old kids have any clear idea about what they want to do when they finish high school — let alone as a career — that they choose the option that keeps all the doors open. In Ontario, that means that they will usually choose grade 9 academic math, because if they don’t they are closing the door to a post-secondary program that requires math. They do it again in grade 10, 11 and even in grade 12. I can not begin to count the number of students I have taught who have struggled mightily in math who then sign up for the hardest math course the following year because they don’t want to close doors. I’ll illustrate with an example. Good ol’ Hanz.

You might remember Hanz from “Steer With the Skid”. Hanz is a hard-working kid who does not have a lot of natural ability in math. By not a lot I mean he’s terrible at it. And please, before you object and say nobody who works hard can be terrible at something, look around. Some people are wired to be awesome at certain things and terrible at others. Some kids are born athletes, some are born artists, some are born mathematicians and some are born poets. You can improve your abilities in almost anything but that doesn’t mean you can excel in almost anything. Personally, as hard as I might have trained, I would never have been an Olympic sprinter. My legs are too short and I don’t have the reflexes. I’ve made peace with it.

So back to Hanz. Hanz doesn’t want to close doors, so he takes Calculus in grade 12. Currently in Ontario the course is actually called Calculus and Vectors. It’s the two hardest math topics in high school grouped together in one spectacular ride. Hanz has been miserable in math class ever since grade 9. He works hard, and puts in the time, but the most he can muster are grades in the 60’s, and it eats him up. His hard work is constantly rewarded with what he considers to be mediocre grades. He’s miserable because he’s convinced that he can’t be successful in life unless he’s successful in math and his definition of successful in math is marks in the 90’s, something he’s never been able to do. In trying so hard to keep a door open, Hanz has missed the fact that for him, there is no door marked “math”. He can’t see that if a program requires Calculus and he takes it and earns a 51% he won’t get in anyway. It’s a fruitless exercise. Yet every time I talk about this with Hanz or his dad Franz, they both insist that Hanz has to stay in Calculus so that he can keep his doors open. That’s when I shake my head and say “Sometimes, there is no door. Walk down the hall.”

See, if Hanz could recognize that there is no “math” door for him, he would be compelled to walk down the hall and see what other doors there are. If Hanz would spend more time in situations where he has natural strength, he’d know what those doors are and what lies beyond them, and he’d be so much happier. Unfortunately it’s extremely difficult to convince Hanz of this, and he spends all his energy working at something he was not wired for, spiraling further and further into self-loathing and often depression. I’ve seen it many times. I’m not exaggerating.

Now please, before you go off wondering how I can call myself a math teacher and be so willing to write kids off, understand that’s not what I am saying. I teach all levels of math. I am just as happy teaching someone like Hanz how to plan a family budget and the evils of credit card interest as I am teaching him how to take the derivative of a sinusoidal function that has been composed with the square of a logarithmic function in order to determine the instantaneous rate of change on the curve at the place where it intersects with a given exponential function. I work just as hard either way, and my reward is always Hanz’s success. It just pains me to see kids like Hanz convinced that they will end up “homeless under a bridge” (this is a saying my students have when they decide they are going nowhere in life) if they can’t do the derivative question. Honestly though, how many people can? And why on earth would most people need to? The derivative question is an exercise in abstract thought that is beautiful in its way, and critical for people going into a field where they have to solve high level math or science problems all the time, but it’s not the definition of intelligence or success.

Students like Hanz often ask me what courses they should choose when they are picking for the following year. I always say the same thing.

Me: “What are you good at?”

Student: “Well I’m good at <insert non-math or science discipline here> but that doesn’t get you anywhere so I need to take <insert completely inappropriate math or science course here>.”

Me: “Why would you take something that makes you so miserable?”

Student: “Because I need it to be successful. I need to keep my doors open.”

At that point I generally ask them how they intend to become successful in a field that requires them to be good at something that makes them miserable. They really never have an answer for that. Except for the door thing. My advice then is for them to take courses they enjoy, and that they excel in. Happy people who excel at what they do are always successful. Find one and ask them. You’ll see what I mean.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

On Being an Introvert

Hey how’s it going? My name is Rich and I’m what people call an introvert. I’ve been one for 43 years so I’m an expert at it. I decided that today’s blog should be about how that works. I’ll tell you what it means, and what it doesn’t mean, and how I’ve learned to embrace it. I’ll also tell you what you should and should not do with the introverts in your life. I will do so by writing about myself, but the truth is I am writing about all introverts. Maybe it will help, maybe it won’t. But I hope you’ll read and think about it.

First, I think I’ll start with what it doesn’t mean, and thus dispel a common misconception. I’m not shy. Far from it in fact. I make my living presenting to groups of 20-30 adolescents multiple times per day. I have presented to groups of 200 people and up. I have performed in musicals in front of theatres full of people. I played Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar. I competed in a bodybuilding competition wearing nothing but a tiny speedo type thing in front of hundreds of strangers.

Rich as Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar

None of these things make me nervous. In fact, I thrive on it. The more people there are for me to present to, the happier I am. When I meet people for the first time I always look them in the eye and extend my hand readily. I am happy to have a meaningful conversation with a stranger and I don’t feel insecure in new situations. These things may make you want to conclude that I am wrong about myself. That in fact I am not an introvert. But I can assure you I am. Card carrying and proud, as they say!

What’s funny is that there are a lot of people who know me who are legitimately surprised when I tell them I am an introvert. That’s usually because they have only ever seen me in small group social settings, or because they have seen me perform or present. It means they don’t know what it means.

So then what does it mean? Well it means that I am happy to spend time thinking. A lot of time. I think and reflect and observe and then I do it all again. When I’m in a large group in a social setting I don’t say much. It’s not because I’m shy — it’s because I don’t have anything to say, and in any case I don’t want to compete for attention because I find it draining. I don’t feel the need to engage in conversation simply because it is a social requirement. I don’t like loud rooms because I can’t hear myself or others talk. I don’t understand why they play loud music in many restaurants when all that does it make it difficult to hear what your companions have to say. I like going to parties but I don’t like staying — I find it’s nice to see everyone but after a while I get overloaded with sensory inputs and I have to leave. Don’t take it personally. The fact that I came means I care about you. If you see me at a party you’ll find me in a quiet corner. You may think I am being stand-offish but nothing is further from the truth. Sit down and let’s have a nice conversation about something interesting. I will listen more than I talk, but I will talk plenty. You’ll probably find that refreshing because I am an active listener. I don’t just listen waiting until there’s a break in what you are saying so I can continue to talk about me — I really listen. And when I talk you’ll find out just how closely I was listening. When I leave I may not say goodbye. That’s only because there was so much going on and I didn’t want to interrupt. I know it comes off as rude sometimes but honestly I’ve found it’s easier to seem rude in one instance than to try and break into an activity to say goodbye.

I also like to be fully prepared before I try something new, and I constantly check my progress to make sure things are going as they should. I ask a lot of clarifying questions before I proceed into the unknown. I’m not afraid to try new things, but I like to understand what I’m getting into as much as possible before they happen. When I was a baby my parents laughed at me because when I would turn around to crawl off a chair I would check the floor 10-15 times as I slowly lowered myself to make sure it was still where I thought it was. When I behave this way with you, just answer my questions patiently and we’ll both be happier for it.

Being introverted means I spend a lot of time observing people. I don’t judge quickly because I’ve learned that the longer you pay attention to someone the more you learn and the more layers you see through. This means I understand most people better than most people. It also means that a lot of people think I’m a snob. I can’t tell you how many times I have been called that. My lack of talking comes off as snobby and disinterested. It simply isn’t true. My lack of talking has everything to do with me thinking about what is worth saying. The truth is there’s not much that is. Most people talk because silence makes them uncomfortable. I love silence — it lets me think.

I’ve also had a lot of extroverts try to “cure” me. That’s one of the most uncomfortable things an introvert learns to deal with. Please don’t get me wrong though. I love extroverts. I enjoy watching how much fun they have doing things that would give me no pleasure at all. I love how they can come into a new situation and within minutes be best friends with everyone in the room. It’s cool. Super-cool. But it’s not me and never will be, and I don’t care because I’ve tried it and it did nothing but make me uncomfortable. One of my favourite examples of extroverts’ deep need to cure me is during the Hora dance, which my Jewish readers will be intimately familiar with. For the non-Jews who don’t know, it’s a kind of dance that an entire room gets involved in. The step is very simple and involves everyone holding hands in a big circle, although very often there will be concentric circles when the number of people in the Hora results in a circumference that exceeds the dimensions of the dance floor. When the Hora music starts up, all the extroverts get a fire in their eyes. They leap from their table and charge to the dance floor, grabbing the hands of everyone they pass on the way. It’s like ecstasy in a dance beat. If you watch the introverts though, you’ll see them deliberately not making eye contact with anyone and keeping their arms firmly at their sides. We are not interested in dancing the Hora. It’s not because we’re not happy, it’s because it does nothing to enhance our enjoyment of life and actually makes us uncomfortable. The problem is our lack of participation makes the extroverts uncomfortable. How can someone not want to dance the Hora, they ask? There can be only one explanation for them — we never tried it. If only we’d try we’d find out just what a blast it is. So they leave the Hora, seek us out, and physically haul us onto the dance floor. The Hora is a perfect metaphor for extroversion. If only we knew how much fun it was, we’d want to do it all the time!

Now when I was younger, I was actually convinced that something was wrong with me. I also was way too polite to refuse. So I would let myself be pulled in by these well-meaning Hora Pullers. And then it was always a nightmare. I would freeze a somewhat horrified smile on my face and move around with the others, always wondering when it was going to start being fun. I looked awkward. I was embarrassed. Being in the Hora only emphasized my introverted nature — it did not even come close to changing it. As I got older I realized I was much better off simply politely refusing. I say things like “Nah, the Hora isn’t my thing” and I smile. It’s much better for everyone this way and I am completely happy and comfortable with it.

So my message to the Hora Pullers, Spirit Leaders and Party Planners is this — I don’t need curing. There is nothing wrong with me, and when I don’t participate in your fun it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you either. I like not participating in those crazy socializers. I like watching — it’s how I learn about people and how I experience large group activities. If you want to find out about me, ask me. If you want someone to talk to who will listen, talk to me. If you want someone to help you reflect, I’m your man.

And if you need a speaker for a conference you’re planning, look me up!

Thanks for reading,

Rich

Steer With the Skid

When you learn to drive in Canada, one of the most important lessons is what to do when your car enters into a skid. It’s not a question of “if” really. In Canada, it’s definitely “when”. Usually it will happen in your first winter of driving, so you’d better be prepared. The technique is to steer with the skid. It means that you have to fight your natural urge to steer in the direction you’d like for your car to go, and instead actually aim your wheels right at that concrete median your car has suddenly decided to crash into. Then, once you and your car agree on the direction you want to go, you gently steer the car away from disaster. It works, and in fact it’s the only way to handle the situation, except perhaps throwing open your car door and launching yourself out onto the pavement.

The physics behind why it works are fairly straightforward. When you enter into a skid your car has momentum which is carrying it in a direction that is usually not conducive to healthy living, and there’s nothing you can do about it because the friction between your wheels and the road has suddenly been reduced significantly by ice, water, gravel or some other non frictiony substance. This means that gross corrections where your wheels are pointed at an extreme angle to the skid won’t work, because the momentum of the car is overcoming the minimal friction at the wheels. So by pointing the wheels in the direction of the skid you force the momentum to cooperate with your goal of non-disaster, and then make relative small corrections which work because the little bit of friction you do still have is only slightly off from the massive momentum. Baby steps of correction eventually get you out of trouble. And it happens pretty quickly, as anyone who has ever done it can attest to. When you don’t understand the physics, it almost seems like magic.

The reason it has to be taught though, is because it’s so counter-intuitive. Aiming in the wrong direction so that you can go the right way feels like slowing down so that you can speed up. As it turns out, this driving lesson is actually an incredibly important life lesson as well. It shows up in so many ways. I’ll illustrate with a few examples of skids.

Skid 1: The Determined Daughter

Imagine this scenario. It’s 5 minutes before you have to leave the house to walk your daughter to school, and she is insisting that she does not want to wear a jacket. The problem though, is that you happen to know it’s 3° Celsius outside. If your daughter is anything like mine and she has her heart set on not wearing a jacket then you have 5 minutes to fight and win World War III. Good luck. This, ladies and gentlemen, is a bona fide skid. Your car is careening into two kinds of barriers. Frostbitten Child and Late Slip. Solution? Steer with the skid. Instead of fighting the momentum, agree that she does not need a jacket, but bring it with you and leave. If you really want to be fancy, don’t wear yours either. You carry hers and she can carry yours. Or you carry them both — it’s not really important. Once again if your daughter is anything like mine she will have a true aversion to discomfort, which is something she’ll start to feel within about 20 steps. She’ll ask for the jacket. If you didn’t wear yours, you can ask her for yours before she asks for hers. That will make it okay for her to ask for her own and still save face. Skid averted. No frostbite and no late slip.

Skid 2: The Quadratic Quandary

Here’s another scenario that I often encounter at school. Let’s say I’m helping a student solve a quadratic equation (apologies for this if you don’t know what that is — feel free to skip this part). Take this one for example:

x² − 5x − 14 = 0

If you’re a math teacher you know that a goodly portion of students unused to solving quadratics are going to try and isolate the variable the nice old fashioned way. You also know that it won’t work – totally destined to fail. You might be tempted to intervene before they try, and suggest a different method, but if you do then in the back of their mind they’ll always be wondering why not just isolate.

The best strategy pedagogically is to let the student try it. Agree that isolating the variable is a good plan. Help them with the operations – steer with the skid. As you work with them to isolate the variable generally this will happen:

x² − 5x = 14

At which point you can have a very valuable discussion about why we are stuck. The student may try some fancy footwork here, but thanks to you being on their side, you can navigate it with them and they’ll see that there’s nowhere to go. Then you can gently steer them toward other options. What do we know we can do with quadratic expressions? Factor them. So what? Let’s find out. I won’t get into the actual solution here, because it’s not important right now and in any case if you were following until now I’m fairly confident you can finish up. But for those who need to know, the solution is x = 7 or x = −2.

Skid 3: The Perturbed Parent

Once more this scenario is one I encounter as a teacher, but in fact it generalizes to any customer service industry. I actually really learned this well in my previous life as a software engineer when I would spend quite a bit of time on the phone with our users who would call when they were struggling with our software. Readers who are teachers will understand this situation pretty well. It goes like this:

Hanz is a student in your class who has written a math test for you and earned a fairly low grade – say, 54%. Hanz has plans to go to university (or college if you’re American – here in Canada college doesn’t mean quite what it does in the States) to become a doctor. Hanz needs a high school average of 91% to get into medical school. Thus the 54% on your test is a somewhat sub-optimal result. The next day you get a call from Hanz’s father, Franz. Franz opens the conversation by informing you that he is a lawyer, and that he has a real issue with the mark you gave Hanz on the test. Franz tells you that Hanz is extremely gifted in math and has always earned grades in the 90’s until your class. Hanz worked extremely hard preparing for the test and his tutor guaranteed that he was ready to ace it. Franz concludes that the whole mess is therefore your fault, because you are an unfair marker, a bad teacher, a horrible human being and quite possibly a chronic hater of children. Franz insists that you raise Hanz’s mark so that it is consistent with Hanz’s abilities and also consistent with his goal to become a neurosurgeon.

At this point it is incredibly tempting to get defensive, or be offensive. After all, Attorney Franz has attacked your professionalism (unfair marker, bad teacher) and your motivation for being a teacher (child-hater). Furthermore, if you know Hanz you know that “gifted” and “math” are not two words that you would put together in a sentence describing him, unless you could liberally sprinkle said sentence with the words “extremely” and “not”. However there is nothing to be gained by this response. All it will do is exacerbate the situation.

Instead, steer with the skid.

First, tell Franz that you understand why he’s upset. In fact you are upset by the grade as well – who wouldn’t be? Ask him about the hard work Hanz put in to prepare. Commiserate with Franz about the difficulties of watching young people work so hard and then not have it pay off. I am not being facetious here, and neither should you be in a situation like this. Put yourself in Franz’s shoes. Hanz worked hard, and hard work is supposed to equate with success. So why didn’t it? You and Franz can discuss this question. You can provide Franz with some questions to ask the tutor about the work he does with Hanz. You can recommend that Hanz come and see you to go over the test to see where the disconnect was. After all, since Hanz is so talented in math, there must have been a disconnect. When Franz sees that you have no intention of fighting him, his momentum joins yours and you can then steer him in the direction he needs to go, which is ultimately to realize that you did not “give” Hanz his mark – Hanz earned it. And getting to the bottom of why he earned a mark as low as he did is what you both want so that you can both help Hanz. This will ultimately help Franz see that it is Hanz who was at fault, and will also eliminate the need to address some of the more insulting parts of Franz’s opening tirade. It is entirely possible that during the conversation Franz will admit that the “marks in the 90’s” comment was not completely true, and referred to 2 quizzes Hanz wrote when he was in the 3rd grade. By the end of the conversation, Franz will know that you are on his and Hanz’s side, and that the energy of all three people is channeled in the same direction – not the direction of the skid anymore!

There are countless other scenarios I can come up with, all of which I have experienced personally (no, I never taught anyone named Hanz …), but the theme is always the same. A situation arises and the temptation is to fight against it, but fighting only escalates the problem. The solution is counter-instinctive and often requires strong self-control but pays huge dividends. Leverage the momentum of the skid for a quick and successful course correction.

Works in cars, works in life. Steer with the skid.

Thanks for reading,

Rich