One sunday afternoon, when I was in the second grade, I learned a key life lesson because my mother got tired of hearing me whine. I had some difficult arithmetic homework. Plus the afternoon was gorgeous, and I could see my friends playing baseball up the hill. My mother was trying to show me how to work the problems, but I was having none of it. “I caan’t,” I said. “It’s too haard.”
My mother finally had enough, and said, in her no-nonsense voice, “Sit here, and do not move, until your homework is done.”
“No buts!” I don’t want to hear another word until you’re finished.”
After a quick review of alternatives, such as rafting down the Mississippi, I realized I was trapped – nothing left to do but figure it out. I remember how delighted I felt when I did, but I didn’t begin to understand how important that lesson would be. How often I would be faced with similar situations, especially in the world of work – critical problems that no one else knew how to solve – and what a boon it would be to think, “Let’s take a look,” instead of, “I can’t.”
There were times when I was younger when “practice situations” arose, and I remembered and took inspiration from that day in the second grade. I fought a similar battle to learn formal calculus proofs as a freshman in college. Another time my van broke down in Bakersfield, and I didn’t have enough to pay someone else to fix it.
I joined the high tech world before the phrase, “cutting edge,” became a cliche – when we really were trying things that hadn’t been done before. Through luck and interest, I spent some years doing early work in a specialty sort of software. That made it exciting, made us kind of important, but also meant when we were stuck, we were stuck.
In the second grade, my mother forced me to learn what it meant to do my best – really do my best. In the world of math and software, it’s rather easy to gauge. You pretty much know when you have a solution, and the harder you work, the quicker you get there.
It’s not so clear cut in writing. Sometimes white-knuckle effort pays off, and sometimes it’s counter-productive. The quality of the my work does not always correlate with “feeling inspired,” and I can’t really judge it until weeks or months go by. Sometimes it’s best to sit at the table and and hammer away, and sometimes it’s better to go outside and play. What works one day may not work the next.
I’ve said before, I love the image Joseph Campbell gave for the way the Knights of the Round Table set out to look for the Holy Grail. Each of them entered a trackless part of the forest, for it would have been “shameful” to follow the trail made by another. In trying to find my own way, charging ahead is probably not the best way to proceed. Rather, it’s time to take my time, pay attention, listen especially to the strange hunch and “crazy” idea. Watch what happens out of the corner of my eye. Learn to enjoy the forest and let it go, for as T.S. Eliot said, “The rest is not our business.”