The Difference Between Making It and Bad Luck


My resistance, make that Resistance with an uppercase "R" to math was so high through middle school that I picked Liberal Arts (Classical Lyceum) in High School to do as little as possible of it.

I much preferred learning ancient Greek and Latin by the bucketload, carting around huge dictionaries with no backpack every single day to be ready for an impromptu translation in class. No lockers for us, plus we had homework every. single. day. about four hours of it after five to six full hours (yup, sixty minutes) in class.

When Matt Waite talks about facing his fears of math#, I could still see mine vividly. As Waite says, it becomes a badge of pride in a quasi-twisted game of jeopardy. Once you are convinced you are no good at something, you lean into how bad you are — in case someone, anyone would call you on learning how to do it.

Imagine my surprise, shock, and the terror, when I learned that my professor of math and physics was also a tenured professor at the Military Academy of Modena#, our own West Point.

Professor Forni was a fairly short man gifted with a physical agility and ability to project I have not seen before or since. He could go from sitting on his chair to yelling at your incompetence standing on top of his desk in seconds. You did not want to get picked on.

We had just four hours a week for the combined programs, including geometry, yet I applied myself harder and worked longer to prepare for those classes, than for the entire rest of the program — Latin, Greek, Italian literature, philosophy, history, biology, geography, English language and literature, etc.

You were to be able to reference the full program to date from day one to present, from year one to the next. None of "we were tested last year" stuff for us. At any class he could walk over and demand to see your homework, and it better be on a neat notebook dedicated to math, or one for geometry.

Every class he would have a few people at random answer questions about the program and/or get up in front of the class to present how to solve a problem on the blackboard. Hiding in the last row would not do, he was a dynamic walk-around kind of teacher.

Once a month, a susprise one-hour test. In essay format, no multiple questions stunts in the Italian education system. I still remember how I felt after one such test for geometry. I finished early, so I asked for an additional question; he always had one or two in reserve for super achievers. I reasoned I might get more right by doing more, or something like that.

The results were announced in a similar style as the paper boy, except for he would walk around and distribute the sheets himself while clearly enunciating your mark. You could hear us hold our collective breath. How did I do on that geometry test? Mine was the first name he called out, I managed a perfect 10 (scale was 1-10 worst to best). Surely it was a mistake? I could not believe it. A 10!

Why not? I was obsessed with geometry, bugging my younger sister who was the exact opposite of me (I used to write her Italian essays) to get some extra tutoring in logic. And that was just it, through that experience, I learned that good math is all about applying logic. Who knew?

My primary teacher had sold me on not being good with numbers… my middle school teacher did nothing to demonstrate any different. I believed them without questioning the premise. My sister on the other hand, had a teacher who approached the subject through logic — what a difference!

It took a lot of hard work to catch up, and some days at the risk of not being fully prepared in other subjects (so many hours in a day and I was into sports). That geometry test result gave me the boost I needed to become more confident in my abilities to think through problems (a strength) using math.

Many years later I ended up studying the nature of risk and probability for a test and working alongside a mathematician who developed a proprietary risk mapping algorithm for the firm. When we invited Peter Bernstein# to lead a conversation at our annual Rendezvous with clients I actually looked forward to it.

The difference between making it and bad luck is twofold:

  1. reframing the issue — in my case discovering it was about logic
  2. working the problem from strength — using a new process to tackle it

Don't let anyone tell you what you can or cannot do. As Will Smith says in The Pursuit of Happyness#: "You want something. You go get it. Period."

I could have accepted bad luck, that I don't get it, as the tape in my head said. Professor Forni made sure there was nowhere to hide, no other choice but doing the work. And it worked.

The point is often we let our fear of not making it stop us short of making that connection to the last mile, where we "get lucky." Yet when we make no excuses and confront the issue, we do okay, in many cases better than okay.



Valeria is an experienced listener. She designs service and product experiences to help businesses rediscover the value of promises and its effects on relationships and culture. She is also frequent speaker at conferences and companies on a variety of topics. Book her to speak here.

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