How Do You Get It Right?

In fourth grade, I completed what I thought was a very easy math test. In those early years, I was good in math. I liked math. I’m not good in math anymore. I’d guess that’s because once I switched to the side that thinks more creatively, it was too hard to go back and forth. So I let go of math and stayed on the creative side.

In any case, back in fourth grade, I was still good in math. The class was given a test where I could easily add the sums and record my answers on the sheet of paper. When I turned it in, I was certain that I had done well. When the papers were handed back, however, I was shocked to find that my grade was a zero.

The problem was, this was a test on estimation. I was supposed to estimate the answer. But I could clearly see how to provide the correct answer, and it made no sense to me that I should give an estimate when I could be correct.

Sometimes I don’t understand instructions or concepts on the first go-round. Especially if I don’t want to hear them. In that instance, I had just gone ahead and given the answers I wanted to give.

Getting to the right answer seems so important at times. Everybody wants to be right in their decisions, judgments, perceptions. So, this concept of estimation was hard on me – being nearly correct, almost correct, sort of correct. Why would I want to do that when I could just get it right?

As far as I know, the fourth grade curriculum did not allow for the philosophical musings that might follow a question on that order. Be that as it may…

Perhaps learning to estimate allows us to see that space between “exact” and “almost” – that space between where we wish we were and the place we actually are. And that “close enough” kind of thinking makes room for a sense of trust in how it’s all working out.

Or we can get stuck looking for the exactness, the precision, the certainty – staying frustrated till we’re there. And in doing so miss some of the other elements of the picture that might be more revealing.

I once read a story about the CEO of a dog food company. I don’t know if the story is true; it’s what you might call a word picture. In any case, this CEO was upset that sales of the dog food were low. He began directing all sorts of changes in the company’s sales structure, in the marketing programs and so forth. He pushed his team to take all sorts of actions to correct course and get it right.

Finally, in a meeting of the team, a mid-level staffer raised his hand and asked, “May I say something?”

The frustrated CEO barked, “What is it?”

“Sir,” the staffer said, “the dogs don’t like it.”

So, you can see that no matter what they did, how hard they pushed, how many changes they made, the company was never going to get it right until they reached the right question: why don’t the dogs like our food?

That could be a lesson for the rest of us. If we’re not getting the answers we want, perhaps we should change our questions.

As a simple example from business life, instead of asking, “How can I increase profits?” you ask, “How can I serve more customers?” Then it takes you from the thing that is elusive to an approach that opens a path.

Or another simple example, in times of conflict, instead of asking, “How can I make them change?” you ask, “How can I accept them as they are?” It takes you from the place where you have no control to a place where you do.

Life is harder than simple examples. But the point is, when you have unanswered issues, see if you can step back and say, “Let me rephrase that question.”

I love this quote by Rainer Maria Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet (1903): “I would like to beg you dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language… Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

Or you might like this one from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “All I have seen teaches me to trust the Creator for all I have not seen.”

As you go out today, whether you get it right or get it wrong, enjoy your magnificent journey.

– Minnie Lamberth
The Magnificent Journey
Vol. 2, Issue 9