What Algebra Doesn’t Teach You

It’s so easy to let fear guide your life.

I dragged myself out of bed last week and stumbled to the bathroom. I stood in front of the mirror, brushing my teeth, having an honest moment with myself.

“If I didn’t have a team, there’s no way in hell I would be lacing up my flats for repeat 2-miles. Not at 6:15 am. Maybe in the evening, if I was feeling antsy from a day in the office. But probably not.”

Passing on the joy of early morning teamwork with my high school team this summer (#BHSXC)


Because running 2 miles as fast as you can and then doing it again is the epitome of exhausting. It will leave you with sore calves and sleepy eyes for the rest of the day. It doesn’t matter if you’re an Olympian or a determined middle schooler racing for the first time. Training for performance is still excruciatingly exhausting. The fatigue is stronger than the scoop of caffeinated electrolyte powder I mix with ice water before each workout. The pain is stronger than my individual willpower.

I don’t want to hurt, so if the only tools I had in my belt were caffeine and my own self-discipline, I’d probably head back to bed.

It’s incredibly easy in our world of cheap thrills to avoid discomfort and anything that requires delayed gratification. It takes a lot of courage for us humans to face our fears, especially if there’s an easy way out.

Why be honest with yourself about your depression when you can self-medicate with alcohol? Why admit that you’re deeply lonely when you can “swipe right” and fake real connection for an evening? Why work up a sweat in the garden when you can just buy a bag of carrots for $0.79? Why stand on the line in a race and submit yourself to the possibility of failure when you could just buy newly legal weed for your kicks and skip the nerves altogether?

Like, honest questions.

Because it really is possible to live a comfortable life these days in middle class America.


boys-boatI just finished a book called, “The Boys on the Boat” that left me teary-eyed as I flipped the pages on my Marta commute. The story follows nine boys in their quest for Olympic gold in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. It’s a classic sports book that reads like a novel, laced with interesting anecdotes about Hitler’s Germany.

It reminds me of “The Red Tent” in the sense that it tells a historical story (Jacob & Esau/the Political Cover-ups of the Berlin Olympics) through the lens of relatively forgotten characters (Dinah/the Washington crew team). I love this style of book because it’s so damn relatable, which is why both books are so emotionally moving and memorable.

The book waxes poetic about the experience of the “swing” of eight men in a boat, rowing in sync with muscles burning. Cheesy though it may be, the athlete in me identified deeply. It humanized these Olympians. They were not just names in a record book, but people experiencing hardship and joy and life just like we all do.

They weren’t born into success.

Serendipitous height and body proportions? Yes, that. Ability to build muscle quickly? Probably that too.

But what they were experiencing was more than just the realization of talent.

“(Wo)men as fit as you, when your everyday strength is gone, can draw on a mysterious reservoir of power far greater. Then it is that you can reach for the stars. That is the way champions are made.” –George Yeoman Pocock

Success doesn’t just come to the strong. In fact, relying on physical/emotional strength alone probably hinders your chances at success.


I have a theory that successful people get where they are because of their willingness to take risks and be brave. The key is that this courage to face adversity comes not just from within, but more so from the networks of support that they have created for themselves.

Some of us were lucky enough to have grown up in an environment that was both nurturing and challenging. Others might first need to take the initiative to seek those spaces out. If we can be strong enough to hold high standards for both ourselves and the people who surround us, we receive in return the opportunity to latch onto that “mysterious reservoir of power far greater”.

The sum is greater than the parts.

The only place this isn’t true is in Algebra class. And as much as I hated group projects in high school, I’m realizing that in the real world, team projects are really the ONLY thing.

There’s a lot that high school doesn’t teach us, and perhaps the most important is that connection bolsters courage, and courage breeds success. Neither risk-taking nor teamwork is particularly valued in high school, and it makes more sense to go for the “A” than the experience.

Connection and experience are what make life fulfilling, though, and even the most flawless of transcripts doesn’t translate into resilience in the face of adversity.

 “When the critical moment in a close race was upon you, you had to know something he did not—that down in your core you still had something in reserve, something you had not yet shown.”

Getting up before the sun to sprint around the track with my teammates reminds me of that “something” that I’ve found that will keep me going at the end of a close race.

Even more importantly, though, is that this is the same “something” that I have in reserve for a time in life when I will think it impossible to go on.

Successful people don’t face things alone. When the going gets tough, the teams keep going.

High School Hannah resting on one of my most important teammates- mom.

(Randomly Slightly Related) Excerpt from “The Boys in the Boat”

“Pocock said that the rings told more than a tree’s age; they told the whole story of the tree’s life. Their thickness and their thinness spoke of hard years and bitter struggle intermingling with rich years of sudden growth… Flaws and irregularities told how the trees endured fires and lightning strikes and windstorms and infestations and yet continued to grow.

“It wasn’t just what the Englishman was saying, or the soft, earthy cadence of his voice, it was the calm reverence with which he talked about the wood—as if there was something holy and sacred about it—that drew Joe in. The wood, Pocock murmured, taught us about survival, about overcoming difficulty, about prevailing over adversity, but it also taught us something about the underlying reason for surviving in the first place: something about infinite beauty, about undying grace, about things larger and greater than ourselves.

“…He talked about the underlying strength of the individual fibers in cedar and how, coupled with their resilience, they gave the wood its ability to bounce back and resume its shape, whole and intact, or how, under steam and pressure, they could take a new form and hold it forever. The ability to yield, to bend, to give way, to accommodate, he said, was sometimes a source of strength in men as well as in wood, so long as it was helmed by inner resolve and by principle.”

“I wasn’t enough to master the technical details of [boat making]. You had to give yourself up to it spiritually; you had to surrender yourself absolutely to it. When you were done and walked away from the boat, you had to feel that you left a piece of yourself behind in it forever, a bit of your heart… Rowing is like that. And a lot of life is like that too, the parts that really matter anyway.”


One thought on “What Algebra Doesn’t Teach You

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s