Trying Something New Is The Most Terrifying Thing I’ve Ever Done.

“I certainly have not the talent which some people possess,” said Darcy, “… I cannot …’

“My fingers,” said Elizabeth, “do not move over this instrument in the masterly manner … They have not the same force or rapidity, and do not produce the same expression. But then I have always supposed it to be … I would not take the trouble of practising. It is not that I do not believe my fingers as capable as any other woman’s of superior execution.”

Over summer, some friends and I read Zander & Zander’s The Art of Possibility. It was relentlessly upbeat, and while your introverted QEP director found such exuberance at times trying, there were some important lessons I needed to learn.

The big idea is we must act in a universe of possibility and potential rather than a world of scarcity and restriction. They do not deny that sometimes, things are bad in the world. What they promote is that each of us, individually, has the power to choose to approach life from possibility.

This spoke to me because, as an erstwhile mathematician, I’ve lost count of how many people tell me “I can’t do math.”  They see themselves bounded.

I prefer the relentless positivity of Elizabeth to be truthful, although far too often I find myself in Darcy’s role. I prefer to acknowledge a quote I heard once from Malcolm Gladwell: “There is no magic math gene; there is just hard work.”

None of my students see a much younger me, studying desperately after a year-long sequence of complex analysis courses. No one in Texas saw me sit down for the three hour qualifying exam I believed would determine my future. No one at all saw me when I opened that envelope, and only I saw that inside was only failure.

It is a tough blow, I think, to find out one is not good at what one wishes to be and do. Even more difficult, to try what seemed extraordinarily hard, to try for an entire year, and not reach one’s goal. Not as devastating as other hard tasks endured, no. Nevertheless, difficult.

What I could not see back then of course, so boxed in by restriction, was the road of possibility before me. I couldn’t see that when I assert my belief that nurture, not nature, is the key to mathematics, I do not say this in a vacuum. When students approach me with a fear they may not earn a passing grade in a course, I feel their pain.

In the moment of discovering we are not perfect, we have, you see, two choices already. In fact we have three. We can be a Darcy, and believe we simply have not a talent. We can be an Elizabeth, content in our current skill and recognizing we own our practiced talent – whatever the level. Or, we can choose the long road.

We can recognise the potential within ourselves, the possibility in the universe around us, and study another year. Sit through classes a second time. Risk a last chance. If we do all that, we earn something that has nothing to do with the passing score hidden inside that second envelope. We can choose the long road and transform ourselves into someone new or unlock new levels of expertise in someone we already are.

Sometimes, things happen in life to us because what we gave (whether much or little) was not enough. It is in what we do afterwards, beyond the metrics of failure and firmly in The Art of Possibility, that matters most. Each of us can transform our central self into whoever we want to be. It just takes some time.

I could do anything,
I could go anywhere,
I could be anything,
Or anyone tonight.

-Theme Song, Dollhouse

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professorwiley

Matt Wiley is a tenured, associate professor of mathematics with awards in both mathematics education and honour student engagement. He earned an assortment of degrees in computer science, business, and pure mathematics from the University of California and Texas A&M systems. He is the director of quality enhancement at Victoria College, assisting in the development and implementation of a comprehensive assessment program to enhance institutional performance outcomes. A programmer, a published author, a mathematician, and a transformational leader, Matt has always melded his passion for writing with his joy of logical problem solving and data science. From the boardroom to the classroom, he enjoys finding dynamic ways to partner with interdisciplinary and diverse teams to make complex ideas and projects understandable and solvable.

2 comments

  1. […] about sharing our vulnerability. My students worry about mathematics, and they do not know about my struggle to become proficient in that discipline. Sharing with them why I wear jeans is another way to humanise our connection; it reminds them we […]

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