On the Answers in the Back of the Book

I can remember the moment as if it happened yesterday, instead of almost 25 years ago. The first day of 9th grade, and I’m sitting in Mr. Rosenblatt’s geometry class. Mr. Rosenblatt was an odd man. Tallish, pickled skin, an unspectacular mustache. He had, on top of all that, a lumpy physique that boldly declared in no uncertain terms that he was a math teacher, not a gym teacher. He smoked like a freight train, drove a Yugo, and had a personality one click more interesting than cardboard. Yep, he made an impression.

My memory of him is eclipsed, however, by the stunning revelation I had when we received our geometry books. Hundreds of dazzling pages of triangles, rhombi, and proofs, my mouth fell agape when I reached the back of the book. There they were. The answers. Had I received the teacher’s copy? Were other students privy to this cache of knowledge? Could I be the Chosen One? I’m pretty sure I placed the book on my desk, slowly looked around, and tried to play it cool. James Bond cool. I had the answers! Chalk this A up to an Easy A, baby!

Before I could really revel in the knowledge that I would ace the course through techniques only slightly less complicated than those used by CIA code breakers, I learned the bummer reality: everyone got the answers. Apparently, Mr. Rosenblatt and the publisher of this book did not understand that math was all about getting the answers. Suckers! Sure, I didn’t have the advantage I thought I did, but I was still loving life. After all, I deserved it. I’d put in several years of hard work in math, and, hey, it was about time I kicked back for a year or so and coasted. What can I say; at 14, your sense of hard work and sacrifice isn’t exactly accurate.

I got an A in geometry, and, for the rest of my math career, the answers were always in the back of the book. As many of you can surely attest, the answers in the back of book became less helpful as time went on. By the time I took advanced calculus in college, the answers were there, but they weren’t really helping me. Along the way, you learned that how you solved the problem was just as important, if not more important, than the final solution.

It turns out that life is a lot more like geometry than we admit. We may not use the word “hypotenuse” every day, even though it’s super fun to say, but, by and large, we know the answers. On a high level, we know what we are aiming for: happiness, peace, meaningful work, laughter, love. These are not great riddles to be uncovered. The solutions are all around us, but, like geometry, the trick is to know how to attain those goals and how to do so consistent with your values.

We can leave the complicated proofs to Matt Damon characters in the movies. For most of us mere mortals, simple arithmetic, subtraction, multiplication, and division are enough. You still have to do the work, though. Knowing the answer is really the beginning. Luckily, unlike most geometry problems, life’s proofs can be solved a lot of different, great ways. So, get out your No. 2 pencil, some clean sheets of paper, and start solving the problem you’re dealing with. You probably already know the answer.

Go ahead. Make Mr. Rosenblatt proud. He’ll be out smoking in his Yugo, waiting to hear from you.

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