You never forget the hardest problems you are able to solve successfully that you are confronted with. That has been my experience. The harder the problem and the longer it takes to solve, the more you will be able to learn and the less you will be able to forget. When confronted with problems of very big magnitude, a lot of people will just not try hard enough and give up. This usually happens when there is no consequence for giving up. When the consequences for giving up are serious, people have less of a choice and must confront and solve the problem. There are different levels of “serious”. If a life depends on solving a problem, or your well-being depends on it, or your livelihood or social standing among your peers, or risk of public embarrassment depend on it, you may see different levels of effort and persistence at play. Really big hairy problems solved leave an indelible mark in your mind. It is as if your brain had been watermarked with the problem and its complicated solution.
During my engineering co-op experience after I received my B.S. degree before I went to graduate school (for the first time) I was sent into the R&D department of a major multinational biotechnology and agrochemicals company, and was given the task by my supervisor to figure out why his model to predict corrosion that started in microscopic crevices inside metal tubes through which certain chemicals where flowing was not working. He had devoted a lot of his “R” (from R&D…) to being able to predict this, and the computer program that was supposed to draw the profiles of all these different ions along the depth of these microscopic crevices was crashing. These were the days of running software programs at night in mainframes to not consume the shared precious computational resources during the day when everyone else in the office needed them.
I was a proud newly minted engineer from a very reputable school. He had a PhD from MIT. We sat down and he explained all the equations he had used to model this – stuff I could understand pretty well. The equations formed a system with many variables that had to be simultaneously solved using numerical analysis – which is a fancy way to say that there is no “algebraic” solution, or one in which you isolate the variables on one side and solve, like in 8th or 9th grade math. In the then “Brave New World” of mainframe computers, we could perform this type of analysis – which used to be done manually before – analogous to when accountants used the very big ledger ruled beige pads to records debits and credits – by writing computer programs that performed all the necessary mathematical steps you instructed them to perform.
I was ready to roll. He handed me a one inch thick printout of 18 inch wide perforated paper that you’ve probably seen coming out of dot matrix printers in old movies or museums with pages and pages of what today they call “code” but back then we called a program. I looked at it. I recognized some of the instruction words, but they were arranged in a syntax that I did not recognize. “What is this written in?” I asked. “FORTRAN”, he said. I did not know FORTRAN, and I had only taken one computer science class in which I received a half decent grade four years prior.
The subsequent 12 weeks were some of the most grueling ones in my short existence at the time. I was forced to learn and in an almost telepathic way transport myself into and travel through the chambers and passages of my supervisor’s very high order analytical mind and mimic the gymnastics of his mental procedural pathways. At ten weeks, the program with my changes was still crashing. I would stay up at night wondering if the printout would be out in the morning after the night processing with the problem solved. I would stay up at night in a fully furnished apartment that they were paying for me to stay in, aside from all the good money they were paying me to get this done. My mental sanity and my reputation were on the line. If I failed, what would be my answer to all the people back home, or in grad school (where I was due back in the Fall), when they would ask me about my summer job in Missouri?
The story has a happy ending. Having painstakingly and methodically exhausted all the possibilities as to whether the error was in the equations (all partial derivatives, with complex coefficients that had to be picked from tables of diffusion rates of stuff you don’t really want to know about), or in my newly and forcibly acquired FORTRAN skills, I decided one morning to go back to the drawing board and start from scratch. I revised all of my boss’s notes and his writings and I discovered an error in his own handwriting that essentially flipped certain of the equation coefficients into their reciprocals. It all amounted to what we all now would call a very stupid mathematical mistake like the ones I made during 9th grade math. The only way to have noticed would have been to go back to the very first page of all his research and revise every single annotation. I could not believe my eyes. I could not believe I had not started by looking at this from the beginning. I corrected the error in the notes, changed the equations in the program, and it ran beautifully. The summer from hell turned into one of the biggest learning experiences of my life. We drew the curves, we presented it, and we were able to do the victory lap around the stadium.
This relatively short experience gave way to years and years of valuable expertise that I was able to use with other complex problems I had to solve down the road. It made it easier to take on tasks that involved learning things on my own, or building things that did not exist before.
The good thing about all of this is that the situation and the outcome I describe are not particular to me. I believe anybody confronted with a challenge with consequences that are meaningful to them will respond in similar ways. I see this every day with the many entrepreneurs I interact with on a weekly basis. They confront serious problems that appear insurmountable at times, and they keep learning and trying new approaches, and sometimes go back to the drawing board, until they hit a solution. Relatively short periods of focused struggle turn into seemingly never ending periods of recurring and non-diminishing returns.
We need a bigger component of this type of experiences in our schooling system. That is why we run our accelerator programs at the Innovation Hub. That is why we continue to have mentoring sessions with our graduates, and continue to follow up and meet with them to remove the roadblocks that may come their way. We want them to take the victory laps, and we want to cheer them from the stands.