I remember a maths lesson at school when I was about 15. The teacher was one I didn’t particularly like, and I think she would be as surprised as I am that I often think of something she said to me.
She had explained how to use a particular Maths equation and had left us to do an exercise. I didn’t understand the equation. I put my hand up and told her I couldn’t do it. She gave me a withering look and told me to try. I said I couldn’t try if I didn’t understand: it was impossible. She shrugged her shoulders. “You won’t know if you can do it unless you try,” she said, before walking away.
I remember feeling irritated. She wasn’t going to help me, even though I had asked her for help. She was my teacher: that was her job. I couldn’t do the question because I didn’t understand. I needed her to explain. After a few moments, I realised she wasn’t going to help me, so I turned back to the first question. I applied the equation, and step by step, somehow, I got the right answer. Then I was annoyed that she had been proved right.
But this lesson has come back to me many times. Whenever I am faced with something that seems impossible, I try to do it, and often, I surprise myself. This one piece of advice has seen me through some sticky moments in book editing, when I thought I would never write another sentence again. But I tell myself to try, and usually I come unstuck.
I think too many of us are so afraid of failing that we don’t even start to try. Often things are not as difficult as they seem, and if we approach them with a cool head, trying to see clearly the way through, we can achieve things we never thought possible. Or better, if we don’t think too much, often the solution will appear. If we worry or over think things too early, we will be stopped in our tracks.
My mother has had a Shakespearean quote stuck next to our telephone for as long as I can remember:
“Our doubts are traitors,
And make us lose the good we oft might win
By failing to attempt.”
In the moment, it is easy to forget this. It is even easier when that calm voice in your head is drowned out by the multitude of other reasons why we shouldn’t try to do something. It’s too difficult. Wait until your older. Something bad might happen. Usually, these voices are not our own, but come from other people. From things we have heard or been told or read in books. We need to learn to ignore them, and do what we want to do. Whether this is on a small scale such as answering a maths question, or a large scale, such as choosing a career path or running a marathon, we need to drown out those voices with the one that tells us we can do it, whatever it is. Making an effort, a tiny step in the direction of what we want, is the only way I can see to find happiness.