A robbery at Ft Knox
Late one night a guy gets into one of the vaults of Fort Knox and he grabs as much gold coins as he can, throws it into a huge bag. No one really knows how much he stole, but as he’s walking out there’s a guard, and the guard catches him basically holding the bag. So what he says is, “How about I give you half the money that’s in here and I give you a $2,000 bonus?” So they make the deal and he takes off.
But the guard, who’s thrilled at his luck, he’s walking out and he gets stopped by a second guard, and it’s the same bribe, half the money plus a $2000 bonus thrown in. The second guard is like, “Great.” But, as he’s getting ready to go out the door, he gets stopped by a third guard and it’s the same dynamic, half of that money plus 2000 thrown in.
Now the original burglar, when he finally gets out of Fort Knox, he has mixed emotions. I mean he did leave with more than he came in with. I mean 9,000 more, and he’s free, but he thought of all the money he left behind and he was pretty sad. Of course by now you know enough to figure out how much he had taken in the first place.
The math problem that I had as a child, in sixth or seventh grade, was just like that, except it had to do with bananas and three men on an island and taking naps and dividing it by three and throwing stuff off the island. But it was equivalent mathematically to this problem where you didn’t know how many bananas they started with, and there was this constant processing of figuring out what happened and how the pile was diminishing. The question at the end was how many bananas did you start with? Much like how many gold coins did you start with when the robber took money from Fort Knox?
It was an extra credit puzzle.
Just do it if you have some time. Yet, that puzzle changed my life, because I took that puzzle to my dad after dinner and we sat down and he decided that he would teach me algebra on that night.
I thought I already knew what I needed to know
Now here’s the thing, I thought I knew algebra, because when you study in school and you’re going through the stuff, it’s really simple – they tell you, “You move this over to the other side of the equal sign and you just make it negative. You move this over here.”
So I had all the mechanics down. But I didn’t really understand how it worked.
I understood what to do. I didn’t understand why you would do it.
That made him very frustrated.
My dad pushed me to do the hard work
So he started teaching me math; he started writing down equations and he started asking me to write down questions. Of course we only used X and sometimes Y. He was using R and S and T and he was doing T sub one and T sub two. I didn’t understand what he was doing and we sat there from about eight at night until after midnight.
We finally got a number. I mean I was in tears. I was exhausted. And he was proud. He taught his son algebra that night.
I didn’t think he had, only to discover years later that I really learned most of math in that single night.
But what really got me was that when we were all set and done he said, “Let’s check our work.” I said, “Okay.”
Now you’ve got to remember this is … I was maybe 11 or 12. That was in 1980, 81, 82, something like that.
We were one of the few folks that had a personal computer in the house. My dad turned around and walked to the computer and he turned it on and went and wrote a small little batch of program. He wrote in Basic at the time.
He wrote a little set of formulas to output and write to screen starting from some ridiculous number building up or building down to get at these equations, to figure out what the right answer was.
What would happen is if you did it right it would output the first number and the last number of what you initially started with in terms of bands and the last number. The trick was you’d have to find it where both were whole numbers, where they were integers.
So he ran the program and he hit print, so it just started spitting out stuff. When it was all done it stopped printing and he turned it off and he looked at it and he found the one that had whole numbers and he’s like, “Oh look, it matches our answer.”
Mind you he did that, both writing the code and printing it and looking over, he finished that in about three minutes.
I remember feeling like, “If you could’ve solved this problem in three minutes instead of three or four hours, why didn’t you?”
This was extra credit. We didn’t have to do this, and we definitely didn’t have to spend four hours fighting.
But the point for him was that I learned, and the point for him was that I knew why I would do what I did, not just how to do it, or what to do.
Why are you telling me this story?
At this point you’re like, “What does this have to do with anything? Why am I telling you this story?”
I find that more often than not a lot of us learn what to do. We learn how to move things, or how to type things, or code thing, or do whatever it is we do. We learn the mechanics of it without often understanding the background for it, without understanding the why.
Maybe you’re writing code and so you copy someone else’s code, but you don’t understand what it’s doing, or you don’t understand why.
You want shortcuts. We all ask for shortcuts. I mean you can look at all the posts in the world and all the questions and everybody is doing the same thing, we’re all asking for shortcuts.
I want to submit to you that the real answer is to not take shortcuts.
The real answer is to spend a deep amount of time stepping into something to learn, because when you learn it, when you truly understand it, it can change the trajectory of your life.
In that single night, not only did I learn math, I learned the value of computers to solve business questions. I learned that when you combine a computer with thinking and the ways to break down a problem that you can actually have it do a lot of work for you.
I mean I learned so much in that single night, and it did, it made me much more inclined towards business problems, much more inclined towards computing, much more inclined towards technology, in a single night, all because we’d gone deep.
Sometimes the shortcuts aren’t helpful
More often than not, people want to know, what’s the secret, what’s the shortcut, how can I bypass all the work?
The answer, my take is, you’re asking the wrong question.
You shouldn’t be asking, how can I bypass all the work?
What’s the shortcut?
You ought to be asking, what’s the long way?
What should I do with deep effort?
What should I do with serious intent that allows me to learn the most and has the maximum impact on the trajectory of my life?
What can I invest in, in such a way that when I come out of it, on the other end of it, no matter how much I cry, no matter how hard it was, no matter how rough and struggle I felt, that on the end of it, it will have a significant impact on everything I do going forward?
That is a question you ought to ask your peers, your mentors, your family.
- But not, what’s the quickest way?
- What’s the shortcut?
- How can I bypass and skip everything else?
Sometimes it’s worth taking the long and hard road so that you understand something deeply.
Because then, when you understand it deeply you have a way to provide value to others, because you’re not just having a cursory amount of knowledge on a lot of topics. You actually go deep in some areas.
I’ve discovered over the last 20 years professionally that I am worth more because of the struggles that I fought than I am for all the little things where I had quick wins.
So embrace the pain. Embrace hard work!