The Obstacles You Think You Know…Don’t Matter

Polynomials suck, but they aren’t the obstacle that matters most…

Polynomial Function

I used to hear one question a lot when I was a kid.

Whether an adult was asking me, or another kid my age, it was always the same:

What are you going to be when you grow up?

In second grade, I knew I wanted to be a doctor.  My friend wanted to be a fireman.  Another friend wanted to be a professional skateboarder.

By high school, I was still thinking doctor, or maybe veterinarian.  One of my friends planned to be an engineer, another wanted to teach, and one planned to go to the Air Force Academy and become a fighter pilot (he just retired from the Air Force a few years ago).

In my senior year in high school I ran into Algebra 2.  More specifically, factoring polynomials.  FOIL method.  Up to that point, math had made sense.  Plug the numbers into the formulas, and get your answer.  X equals 11, Y equals 9.  Pythagorean Theorem?  Piece of cake.  Word problems?  Easy.

But, polynomials made no sense.  The magic of the FOIL method didn’t help.  First, Outside, Inside, Last?  Solving for multiple variables that cancel each other out in some mysterious way?  Arriving at an answer that looks as cryptic as the original question?  What does a polynomial look like if you draw one?  When will we ever use this in real life?  I’d say it was all Greek to me, but I didn’t know Greek either, or Latin.

I hadn’t even reached Calculus (the math all the other brainiacs were taking in their senior year), and I’d hit a wall.

Polynomial Example

I could see the handwriting on the chalkboard (teachers used to write on them before whiteboards were invented).  To become a doctor would require a science degree of some kind.  That science degree would require a ton of math well beyond polynomials…maybe even Calculus.  What comes after Calculus?!  And, what about Latin?  Doctors all seemed to use Latin.  How would I learn that?  It wasn’t even offered at my high school.  And, what about getting into medical school?  Did I have eight years to give up?  How would I pay for all of it?  This was going to be hard!

We each have a strategic thinking instinct.  The ability to prioritize, make deductions, create connections, and map out a direction.  Or, multiple directions.

Unfortunately, more often than not, we either ignore our strategic thinking capability, or we use it to map out why something is impossible.  We visualize all the obstacles while ignoring the path around, over, or through them.  We neatly stack all the obstacles into an impenetrable wall, rather than a series of hurdles to be taken one-at-a-time.

My doctor plans went down in flames…but, I was the one pointing the metaphorical plane into the ground.

Could I have found a way to understand polynomials?  Yes.  Could I have dealt with Calculus?  Yes.  What about Latin?  Yes.  What about getting into medical school?  Yes.  Did I have what it took to become a doctor?  Probably (we will never know).

Did I allow myself to realize any of this at the time?  No.  I was too busy jumping toward another goal that had fewer obstacles, or so I thought.  One that didn’t require Calculus.  One that I could get my head around, and see more clearly.

I now understand something I didn’t back when I was a high school senior.  I’m not sure I understood it by the time I was a college senior either.  Our biggest obstacle, the one that matters more than any of the obstacles we can see, the obstacle that trumps all others, is staring back at us in the mirror.  Find your way around, over, or through yourself, and you are well on your way to overcoming almost any other obstacle in your path…maybe even polynomials.

Want the answer to the crazy equation?  This might (or might not) be it



Photo Credits:  Here and Here


The Bargains We Make

I bargained with Life for a penny…

I came across this classic poem recently:

My Wage

I bargained with Life for a penny,

And Life would pay no more,

However I begged at evening

When I counted my scanty store.

For Life is a just employer,

He gives you what you ask.

But once you have set the wages,

Why, you must bear the task.

I worked for a menial’s hire,

Only to learn dismayed,

That any wage I had asked of Life,

Life would have willingly paid.

–by Jessie Belle Rittenhouse (1869-1948)

My Question for You

What is your bargain with Life?

Are you working for a penny, or something more?

How about your end of the deal?

Are you even keeping score?

If we get out of Life,

Only what we ask,

I say go for the Moon,

And reach for the stars.

But, are you willing to bear the task?

Everyday is a Surprise

It all started with an earache…

 “Bobby (what anyone who knew me before I was about 13 calls me), it all started with an earache.  The doctor gave me some ear drops.  The pain didn’t stop and seemed to get worse, so he gave me stronger drops.  That still didn’t work.  He ran some tests and told me it’s cancer, and I’m gonna die.  It was an earache, and then I was dying.  He says that I will probably just die in my sleep, so each time I wake up, it’s a surprise.”


In Pete’s case, it took about four months for the cancer specialists to identify the type of cancer that is killing him.  He told me the name, and said it is very rare, untreatable, and fast moving.  I made a mental note to look up the cancer and learn more about it.  As I type this post, I have forgotten its name.

The fact that each of us will die is no surprise.  The timing is the surprising part.  That, and the name of the thing that ultimately causes our death.  There’s always a name.

I remember a conversation I had with Grandpa Clyde (my wife’s grandfather) at least ten years ago.  He was in his late-80’s at the time, showing me how to cook ribs properly on a barbeque.  I asked him what it was like to have lived as long as he had.  I will never forget his response.  “If you live long enough, you say goodbye to a lot of friends and family.  Most of the people I grew up with are dead and gone.  I stopped going to funerals a long time ago.  I spend my time making new friends, and enjoying this time I’ve been given with my family.”

Growing up, Pete was one of my role models for a life worth living.  A firefighter, motorcycle tuner, racer, helmet painter, wheelie king, runner, water skier, speeding ticket magnet, traveler, and a Bluegrass fan.  Although I never actually saw it, he used to say that he also jumped rope, attended three world fairs, and a few other things that are probably better left unmentioned.  Pete never stopped making new friends, or appreciating his old friends.  He grabbed all that life has to offer, and then some.


Pete wears a patch over his right eye now.  The tumor has grown and prevents that eye from blinking.  He is in a lot of pain, and the pain medications cloud the passage of time.  This hasn’t stopped Pete from grabbing what life has left for him.  He is living each remaining day as a surprise.

In truth, each day is a surprise for all of us.  An opportunity to appreciate our family and friends.  An opportunity to make new friends, and enjoy what little time we’ve been given.

Top 9 Things New Parents Need to Remember

My daughter and son-in-law just had their first baby.  His name is James, and he’s one week old.

Inspired by our new grandson, I thought I’d give some advice about parenting.  Trust me when I say that I’m no expert.  Then again, I don’t think anyone is truly an expert in this, the oldest of callings.  With that in mind, here’s my Top 9:

1.  No child is perfect.  Precious, yes.  The center of your universe, yes.  Perfect, no.  They will make mistakes, just like you.  They will have difficult challenges (real and imagined) in their life, just like you.  They will need someone to support them in good times and bad, just like you.  They will occasionally need someone to point them in a new direction, just like you.

2.  Children learn what you teach them.  This sounds obvious, but I think some parents forget this truism.  You should always have an eye on what you are teaching through your words and actions.  Everything you do, say, and value, are always on display for your kids.  The way you handle challenges, approach new ideas, enjoy your day, place value on accomplishment, and take the time (or not) to notice the small pleasures in life, are all teaching your child how to approach life.  Kids have a voracious thirst for new knowledge.  Have fun helping them chase down new things to learn.

3.  Enjoy sharing the things you do with your child.  If you’re doing yard work, get your child involved, even if it’s only to hold the bag while you dump leaves into it.  Building the latest piece of your Ikea collection?  Get them in there with you.  Their “help” may double the amount of time the project takes, but your child will learn what it’s like to work on projects and see them through to completion.  Are you thinking about flying a kite?  Don’t just show them the flying part.  Get them involved in picking out the kite, assembling it, and figuring out which way to point it into the wind.

4.  Child development is similar to sculpting clay.  When clay is new, it’s pliable, easily shaped, and flexible.  You start with the big sweeping parts of the shape, and then hone-in on the finer details.  As you work the clay, it begins to dry.  It becomes less pliable.  It starts to stand on its own.  As the clay continues to dry, even slight adjustments are difficult.

What you do to shape your child’s view of the world, their understanding of right and wrong, the importance of serving others, understanding how their decisions impact themselves and others, needs to happen as early as possible.  The foundational shaping of a productive and independent adult happens very early.

Shaping the clay is only half the challenge.  To fully mature and keep its shape, clay needs to be fired in a kiln and heated to extremely high temperatures…a true trial by fire.  Your child will face many trials by fire.  Many will be theirs alone, while some will be shared with their parents.  Give your child (and yourself) the freedom to succeed and fail in the various trials of life.  Always remember the main goal is to help your child become the greatest version of themselves they can, have lasting values, and be someone who can stand the heat and come out better for it.

5.  Laugh with each other, and at each other…a lot.

6.  Parenting isn’t a democracy.  Parents make the rules.  Your child needs the structure that comes from a well-disciplined environment that you create.        

7.  If you make a mistake, don’t be afraid to tell your child about it.  They can learn just as much from your mistakes as they can from their own.  In fact, they will probably learn more from how you handle your mistake than the actual mistake.

8.  Kids need balance as much as adults.  Adults often talk about trying to achieve an optimal life-work balance.  The same thing should apply to kids. This may mean that they can’t play on the club soccer team, take sailing lessons, and have a lead part in the school play all at the same time.  Help your kids make trade-off’s to achieve an optimal balance of activities, school, work, etc.  Some of the most valuable time in a kid’s life is the “down time” relaxing with their parents.  As much as people talk about “quality time” with their kids, I think there is also a lot of value in “quantity time” that shouldn’t be forgotten in the hustle to do more with each day.

9.  The greatest gift a mom and dad can give to their child is to love each other.  Take the time to ensure that your child gets to see the love between their parents grow each day.  A loving family is a delight to behold, and your child will revel in such a nurturing environment.

9 ¾.  Your goal should be to help your child become a productive and independent adult, who adds value to their community.  Nothing more, nothing less.

Four Life Lessons from Drag Racing

Recently, I attended the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) drag racing season opener in Pomona, California.  It was my first time going to all four days, and I had the fortune of bringing a different group of guests with me each day.

There is nothing like the energy wave that hits you at the starting line when two top fuel dragsters or funny cars takeoff.  The cars run on nitro methane, and each have 10,000 horsepower, so that’s 20,000 horsepower hitting the throttle at the same time.  Not much of a life lesson in this particular fact, but it is an awesome display of horsepower.  I saw many of life’s lessons on display at the event.  Here’s four of them:

1.  Flawless execution is all about preparation.  Teams worked for months before this season opener to prepare their cars, select their driver, select the right crew members, secure sponsorship, coordinate travel, and address countless other logistical challenges.  A typical top fuel run takes just under four seconds.  When everything goes right for both cars, the winning margin at the finish line is often measured in the thousandths of a second.  Countless hours of preparation come down to a four-second race.  Everything is on the line (the starting and finishing line, that is), in every race.  Flawless execution is a requirement, and can only be achieved through rigorous and disciplined preparation long before it’s time to race.

2.  There’s no “I” in TEAM (but, there is an “I” in WIN).  This apparent contradiction can be confusing.  In drag racing, the driver gets the glory of the win.  The same can be said of many other pursuits…the quarterback, the doctor, the manager, the captain of a ship.  None of these individuals can be successful without a dedicated and skillful team.  It can also be said that the team would have a tough time being successful without the person at “the tip of the spear.”  It’s almost a cliché that we win as a team and lose as a team.  Each team member can have the “I win” moment, even if they aren’t steering the car.  It can only happen if everyone on the team does his or her part.  Trouble starts when team members forget this, or lose respect, trust and gratitude for their fellow team members.

3.  Statistics and past performance don’t guarantee anything.  John Force is a legend in drag racing.  He has won the top fuel funny car season championship 14 times.  His team is extremely talented and well funded.  Statistically, he should win every race he enters, especially against a new team.  But, here’s the thing:  statistics don’t race.  Statistics don’t decide the outcome of any competition.  The bigger, better-funded, more experienced team isn’t guaranteed to win…the same way that the bigger, better-funded, more experienced company isn’t guaranteed to win.  The best teams (and companies) never forget this.

4.  Managing risks is critical to survival, but not a guarantee.  In top fuel drag racing, the risks are plain to see.  During opening weekend, I saw funny cars hit the wall, cross the center line, and one blew up, launching its carbon fiber body high in the air.  I saw a few dragsters blow their engines only 2-3 seconds into their runs.  On final elimination day (Sunday), I saw Antron Brown’s dragster cross the finish line as the winner, only to have his engine and both back tires explode in a fireball.  This sent his car careening out of control at over 300 miles per hour into the wall, and then skidded upside-down until it finally came to rest at least 500 yards away from the finish line.

Managing and preparing for the risks is the key to survival when things go wrong.  Antron Brown walked away from his crash.  Why?  Because his team focused on safety systems as much as they focused on tuning their car for speed and performance.  Safety and risk management weren’t afterthoughts.

While Antron walked away from his crash, the unfortunate truth is that managing risks doesn’t guarantee avoiding all risks.  Drivers sometimes receive debilitating injuries, or are killed, when things go wrong.  Drivers and their teams acknowledge these risks and devote tremendous effort to mitigating them.

They don’t allow the dangers to stop them from their pursuit of higher performance, and winning.  If they did, there’d be nobody to compete in the race.  There are risks in just about every human endeavor.  Acknowledge them and plan for them as best you can…but don’t let them stop your pursuit of higher performance.

You can learn a lot at a drag race…if you are paying attention.

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