I’ve been a chemistry tutor for over five years. What started as helping out a friend has become a new career, and I’ve added math, including calculus, to the mix this year. Gosh, I so missed solving hard math problems.
Many people think they’re bad at math because they don’t have all the answers instantaneously. They don’t even know what skill they need to start a problem. Chemistry is challenging because it’s usually the first time you’re using math to solve science—an entire year of those dreaded word problems.
One of the many secrets to mastering math and chemistry isn’t a formula or a cheat sheet or having mad skills. It’s being able to attack each problem, each test question. Look at what you’re given, look at what they want from you, and go from A to B.
How do you do that? Practice. The practice of doing many, many problems until you are able to attack anything that might be thrown at you.
It’s no different than anything else you practice—an instrument, a sport, an art. In order to master any subject, you have to do the grind. The grind of waking up and doing the same thing day after day. The grind of focusing on perfecting each little detail. The grind of continuing to move forward so slowly that you see more failure than success. The grind of brushing yourself off after each failure and getting back on the path.
Over the years, people are in awe of my chemistry degree, like I have this amazing talent. To be honest, it’s just that my love of the subject gave me the determination to grind out problem after problem. I can’t sleep on an unsolved chemistry or math or computer programming problem, often waking at 2 am to finish what I started. It just tumbles in my brain, crying to be solved, just like the baseball player down the street throwing curveballs at a net late on a summer evening or the oboe player next door playing the same measure of music over and over again on a Saturday morning.
Of course, it’s easy for someone with a passion for baseball or a talent for playing the oboe to do the grind, but have you ever heard someone express a huge passion for being a cog in a Corporate America cube farm? How do you grind at something you don’t love? That doesn’t come easily for you?
How many of you loved school when you were in second grade, but hated it by the time you were in high school because the classwork was just so hard? How many of you grew up playing Little League or taking dance lessons or studying piano, but quit when it seemed that you had hit your limit?
I joke that I’m the utility ballplayer of life because I’ve done so many things, but quit before I had mastered them. I’m competent in a lot of skills, but not exceptional. My resume goes from research chemist to quality consultant to executive director of a political party to tutor. I’ve taken dance lessons and piano lessons and figure skating lessons. I played clarinet in the school band, nine years total. Even where I do have talents, math and science, didn’t help me push through the challenges in college. I graduated with my degree, but barely.
It’s hard to believe that a year ago, I was on top of the world with my running, having negatively split New York through the hardest part of the course to break 5 hours and get my second fastest time. 2020 was supposed to be the year I took a break from racing to focus on how I could get that Boston qualifying time. Then the world shut down, and my focus turned to survival. As the months tickd by, and races continue to be cancelled, delayed, postponed, and modified, I thought about my quest to finish all six majors by my 50th birthday. The deferments, the cancellations were definitely going to impede my ability to grab slots in Toyko or London once things returned to normal. There’s usually half a million people who apply for those lotteries in a normal year, but what now? As for Boston, losing one, if not two years for charity runners will make it even harder to get one of those coveted spots, and I’m so busy trying to survive that running has taken a back seat, derailing my efforts to qualify.
I have five years to get into three major marathons. I’m barely scraping by, financially, my mental health is a mess, and there are now millions of runners who didn’t get the spots they thought they’d get this year. How on earth am I going to finish this quest?
Then I thought of my students, past, present, and future. How many of them feel dumb at school? How many hate doing homework because they just don’t even understand the lesson? How many want to give up and say they can’t do chemistry or math?
Tutoring isn’t just about AP exams and letter grades. It’s about helping these kids overcome challenges, solve problems, and learn how they learn so they can apply these skills for the rest of their life. Odds are that you won’t have to use the ideal gas law or Rolle’s Theorem in your 40s, but the skills that got you through those assignments and tests, will.
Just like my quest; it is more about the journey more than the end result.
In 2021, I need to figure out how to do the grind when it’s something that isn’t easy or fun or exciting or interesting. After some soul-searching, I came up with three things I’d like to accomplish this year for three very different reasons. They are all going to take that grind, though in different ways:
- British accent. As a high school drama kid, I was always jealous of my classmates who could switch into a British accent without even thinking about it. When I got a part in the fall play and had to do five lines in accent, I spent hours and hours listening to Brits read books on tape, trying to figure out the intonations and pronunciations, but never feeling like I got it right. Now, with YouTube and Zoom and all sorts of tools (there has to be an app, right?), as well as maturity and wisdom, perhaps I can master something that I was convinced I couldn’t.
- Daily routine. It’s been a year, right? As I navigated the roller coaster of part time work and furloughs, I saw a lot of my regular maintenance routines falling apart from running to brushing my hair every morning. I’ve put down the list of things I do want to accomplish every day. It may not be fun or exciting, but going through the steps to get my life reset will do wonders for my mental health. (If you were wondering about running, it’s part of this routine. Baby steps.)
- Blogs and Coffee. As part of my daily routine, I’m reading blogs I find on Twitter over my morning coffee. I had a great idea a couple of days ago to use the hashtag #blogsandcoffee to share the blogs that I’m reading. Now, I’ve had a lot of great ideas over the years that get lost on the wayside for a number of reasons, so my goal here is to post #blogsandcoffee every single day in 2021, even if it’s a tweet to say why there wasn’t a #blogsandcoffee. Maybe it will develop a following, maybe it won’t, but at least I ground through the challenges and finished what I started.
Unlike most New Years resolutions, which have an endpoint, I am creating a focus, an intention, to grow as a person, regardless of whether or not I meet my goals. If I figure out how to grind through things I don’t enjoy, it’s powerful—and it’s a power I can teach my students so they can succeed, whether it’s third grade math or AP Physics.
Also, rather than a personal, specific goal, it’s a theme we can all take together. Let’s face it. 2020 was a struggle in many ways. We survived, but not without damage. We’re not the same people who started this year, but to continue to thrive, we need to continue to evolve. We need to grind through our challenges, whether it’s AP Calculus or working from home or figuring out how to change the oil on the car. What are you needing to grind through in 2021?