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The Math Problem That Changed My Dad Forever

This Week’s True Story: The Math Problem That Changed My Dad Forever

How can we become fearless, or at least more confident? For my dad, all it took was a simple math problem. 

Back in the 1950’s, when Salt Lake City was still a sleepy little town, my dad attended grade school at Lafayette Elementary. The school was named after the kind of patriot and revolutionary my dad grew to revere. 

My dad was an okay student, but he didn’t love any subject like he loved playing baseball or marbles.

One day in class, he and his fellow students were learning their times tables. They’d mastered the basics of multiplying single digits, but hadn’t yet been introduced to the complexities of multiplying by zero.

The teacher wrote a problem on the chalkboard—something like “1 x 0 = ?”—and asked each student to come up front and write their answer. One by one, each student dutifully came to the board, picked up the chalk, wrote their answer and sat back down.

Once all the students had returned to their seats, the board was full of “1’s,” along with a single “0.”

The teacher asked who had written the zero. My dad sheepishly raised his hand. When the teacher asked him to explain how and why he had arrived at that answer, he couldn’t.

Observing that his answer was different from his classmates, she asked if he wanted to change it. He figured that if he was the only one to get a different answer, he must be wrong.

He returned to the chalkboard, erased his zero, and scrawled a one.

After he sat back down, the teacher explained that the correct answer was, of course, zero.

My dad never forgot that experience.

From then on, it didn’t matter whether he arrived at a conclusion through logic or intuition—once he reached it, he held firmly to it.

I know this experience impacted him greatly because he shared it from time to time with me and my siblings as we were growing up. He also told this story to employees in our company—particularly developing leaders and first-time managers—to encourage them to trust themselves even when others disagreed with them.

Think about your life. Is there some area where you’re not trusting yourself? Somewhere that your need to fit in—or to avoid standing out—is obscuring your original genius?

Regardless of what conclusions you’ve reached, how you’ve lived, what you have or haven’t done or who you know yourself to be, as the author of your life, you can write a new answer at any time.


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Bryan Miller

I help achievers learn & grow, connect, contribute and have fun.

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