When I was a kid, I loved solving math problems. In fact, the more difficult they appeared to be, the more compelled I felt to tackle them. After school, I would call my friend Ali to ask him about the day’s homework, and he would report back on what the rest of our brainiac friends were doing. “Don’t even try to solve the last two problems,” he would say. “Nobody has been able to do it.”
That, of course, meant I would spend the rest of the night trying to unscramble those two problems. I’d clear off my desk, ignore the rest of the assignment, and go to work, determined to solve the parts that had been deemed unsolvable. Sometimes I found the answer, sometimes I didn’t — but I always made some sort of progress.
Those early math problems taught me an important lesson: When things feel impossible and when it seems like you will never find the answer, that is exactly when you have to try even harder to move forward and find a way.
This, I believe, applies to problems big and small — such as solving a math equation, achieving a fitness goal, overcoming a personal hurdle, or developing the next iteration of the latest technological advancement.
The first step to finding any solution is to begin by breaking the problem down into the simplest pieces you can. Take one small step at a time, solving one small piece of the puzzle, then another. You probably won’t get the complete answer at first; in fact, you may not even be able to see the complete problem. But each time you tackle one of the pieces, it will reveal the next step you have to take.
Believe that you can do it, be persistent, and before you know it, the problem will be solved. And the next time things get hard or a challenge presents itself? You’ll know you have it in you to do your best to find your way to the other side. Which brings me to some of the most important wisdom I’ve received on perseverance.
More than 20 years ago I was preparing to get my pilot’s license. I had completed my training and my written exam, and the next step was to pass a flight test with an experienced aviator. I scheduled my test in Arizona with an FAA examiner named Gordon Henry, who had about 50 years of flight experience. I have never forgotten him, because in our few hours together, he taught me about so much more than flying.
During the test, Gordon assessed my skills and knowledge, and observed how I behaved in the cockpit. He paid attention to my demeanor and how it changed based on different circumstances, while offering valuable insights on how to think about flying. One thing in particular still rings loud and clear: “When you’re flying and things go wrong, don’t ever stop flying. Even if the wing of your plane breaks off in midair, your plane is spinning out of control, and you’re headed for the ground, don’t stop flying. Even then, keep the yoke in your hand and keep fighting to level that plane.”
Most problems don’t present life-or-death scenarios, but Gordon’s message, at its core, was about never giving up, even when failure seems inevitable. Even if there’s only a slim chance of success, there’s always the hope that your efforts will be worth it — and in extreme cases like flying, they may save you. If they don’t, then at least you gave it your all until the very end.
Many of the greatest accomplishments of humankind have been achieved despite widespread skepticism. People have overcome the most pressing challenges with grit and determination. In most cases, it took someone — and in many cases, lots of people — believing there was another way and who kept trying until he or she or they made it happen.
I believe that each of us has the strength and courage within us to face challenges head-on and to create new opportunities, for ourselves and others. My hope is that you can see those qualities within yourself — and that your sense of possibility and your ability to persevere allow you to build the life of your dreams.