Yesterday, I was hanging around Anne’s office when a colleague barged in. He had a handful of paper and waved it in front of Anne as he declared, “I have tried everything I can think of, I can get close to a solution but not all the way. I have failed!”
Anne closed her laptop. She invited him to sit and take a deep breath. Although he was agitated, Otto sat down and took a deep breath.
“You know we don’t use the “F” word around here,” Anne began. “I didn’t,” replied Otto.
“Well Otto, there is more than one “F” word and the one I am referring to is “Fail,” said Anne gently. “Like Thomas Edison said as he was persisting to invent the electric light bulb, “I have not failed. I’ve found 10,000 ways that won’t work,” you have discovered many ways that do not work. You have yet to find the solution, but you have not failed.
“How about if we look at the problem together? I am not as close to it and perhaps something will appear to me.”
“Please remind me of the background,” asked Anne.
Otto pulled up his chair and spread out the pages he had come in with. He took another deep breath and provided the background to the problem. Then he showed the potential solutions he had explored. You have to know that I could not begin to understand; he said he had used both geometry and trigonometry.
“Where does it break down?” asked Anne. Otto was more than a bit impatient as he repeated some of what he already had said.
Anne ignored the attitude. She took out a pen and started to write. Otto looked over her shoulder and shook his head as he said, “No. I already told you that does not work.”
Anne did not even look up. She continued to write. It didn’t take long before she was ready to share her thoughts with Otto. Showing him her notes, Anne asked, “What if we omit this condition? The one you assigned a value of zero - it doesn’t provide any useful information.
“If we exclude the zero value …” She didn’t get to finish.
Otto jumped up and said, “Yes, I see where you are going with this now!” He reached for Anne’s notes, gathered up his own papers and announced, “I will try it. Give me a couple of hours and I will come back to you.”
Anne smiled as she reminded him, “Please remember we don’t use any four-letter “F” words around here.”
Otto nodded again as he left.
Anne looked over and asked me if I had any questions. I was still processing what I had observed but I did want to ask, “Why did you let him behave that way?”
“What way?” Anne inquired.
“He was pretty negative towards you.”
“That’s true. He was angry and disappointed with himself. I was focused on reviving his confidence in his own ability to find a solution. It wasn’t the right moment for me to take offence.”
She opened her laptop and carried on with her work leaving me to absorb that.