Exceptional Times

I failed Algebra 2 in high school. It was hard, I lacked the determination to figure it out and I wasn’t open to the help I needed. I finally just gave up and it was an easy decision to do so: I was a history, arts and language guy. Math had no relevance to me. Realizing I had to make up the failing grade and put a little lipstick on my college transcript, I enrolled in what turned out to be the easiest summer school class you can imagine. The “F” turned into an “A” because the teacher only gave us assignments and open book tests that matched the answers in the back of the book. I am not kidding. And I was all too happy to put the sorry experience behind me.

Do you remember when Forrest Gump finds out that he has a son and he’s desperately afraid that he will be “special,” too? I had that same fear when it came to my kids and math. Notwithstanding my wife’s stronger track record in this area, I dreaded the thought that I would pass along my ineptitude. Of course, this was a baseless concern. My kids are great at math and it’s one of my 15-year-old son’s best subjects. When I attended a “shadow your student” day not too long ago his math teacher passed out a worksheet introducing trigonometry to the class for the first time. The premise was simple, given the values of two sides of a triangle the students were to use the formula provided to find the value of the third side. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but enjoyed observing my son work through the new equation and felt very good that I understood, at least conceptually, what the heck was going on.

I soon discovered that was only to be my introduction to trigonometry. In the same way the make and color of the car you just bought seems to be everywhere you drive, this particular strain of math is following me around. In Anthony Doerr’s beautiful, compelling and Pulitzer prize-winning novel, All the Light We Cannot See, trig plays a central role. A German boy, orphaned, poor, smart and resourceful becomes a self-taught radio expert. His talents emerge during his education in a Nazi “prep school” and he is selected for daily laboratory time in support of the work of the school’s technical sciences professor.

“Can you do trigonometry, cadet?”

“Only what I’ve been able to teach myself, sir.”

Hauptmann takes a sheet of paper from a drawer and writes on it. “Do you know what this is?”

Werner squints. “A formula, sir?”

“Do you comprehend its uses?”

“I believe it is a way to use two known points to find the location of a third and unknown point.”

Hauptmann’s blue eyes glitter; he looks like someone who has discovered something very valuable lying right in front of him on the ground. “If I give you the known points and a distance between them, cadet, can you solve it? Can you draw the triangle”

“I believe so.”

And he does, repeatedly, aiding the professor in the development of a technology he will eventually employ to root out enemy forces and members of the resistance on both fronts of the war who are sending illegal radio broadcasts.

Their first meeting in the professor’s office concludes this way:

“A scientist’s work, cadet, is determined by two things. His interests and the interests of his time. Do you understand?”

“I think so.”

“We live in exceptional times, cadet.”

A thrill enters Werner’s chest. Firelit rooms lined with books – these are the places in which important things happen.

Here, again, we are living in exceptional times. Here, again, we are staring into the near future with very little assurance of what it holds, little to no certainty of what’s to come. We are searching in the dark for a railing to hang onto as we make our best efforts to define a future we can believe in. And, here is where, all these years later, I see a usefulness for math that I never imagined. Here is why, starting in my son’s classroom and deepened through this wonderful story, I can speak with confidence that leadership in a time of change requires an astute understanding and application of trigonometry!

Given two known points, can you find the third? Given what you know, can you find the unknown? I believe that the answer to that question, in the context of leading change, rests entirely in the depth and quality of our answers to these questions:

Do you KNOW yourself? values, strengths, limitations, purpose, hopes, dreams?

Do you KNOW your team members? values, strengths, limitations, purpose, hopes, dreams?

Do you KNOW your vision? Is it clear and compelling? Is it worth fighting for? Do you move toward it every day?

These are our known points. I trust as deeply as I can that knowing them without hesitation and with the deepest conviction to continuous revelation is our only hope for making the unknown known.

Exceptional times call for exceptional awareness, the coordinates we need to find our way.

DAVID BERRY is the founder of RULE13 Learning. He writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world, especially the parts where he doesn’t handle it very well. If you enjoyed this post someone else might, too. Please pass it along.

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