The willingness to take risks, to try something new–and to appear foolish in the process–is a powerful differentiator in life. Because so many others will opt to “play it safe,” it doesn’t take too much to stand out from the crowd.

So on the 16th anniversary of the debut of my “By the Numbers” column appearing in The Courier News of Elgin, Ill., what follows is an essay that I wrote in 1999 for Northwestern, my alumni magazine.

How do you eat an elephant?

I pose this question to two dozen sixth-graders in Mrs. Cornelissen’s class at Channing Elementary School in Elgin, Ill. Standing next to me is Tony, who stares listlessly at a number on the blackboard.

Most of the kids guffaw, or ask if they’ve heard me right. But a few jump right in with a reply.

“With a fork!” one girl declares.

“Well,” pipes in a boy, “you’ve got to cut it up.”

Exactly. The same thing you need to do with anything big, whether it’s an eight-digit number or a long-term life plan for success. Break it down into smaller pieces and then take a stab at each smaller portion. With or without a fork.

The number that has Tony stumped is 23. He’s trying to multiply it by the number 11 by adding the digits (2 and 3) and inserting the sum (5) between those digits. Probably because I grew up on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, I’ve dubbed this shortcut technique the 11 Sandwich. It’s one of many foods for thought I offer during my 45-minute presentation, which is designed to challenge the way kids look at math.

In the year that I’ve been visiting Elgin’s elementary schools, I have tried to convey to the students that posting small, bite-sized victories provides fuel to keep on trying despite the setbacks. Eventually, a series of tiny triumphs amount to increased self-confidence and a firmer grasp of math.

One of the biggest obstacles is the It’s-Too-Good-to-Be-True Syndrome. As kids try to tackle new arithmetical concepts, skepticism is often rampant that this different approach could be so simple.

Where’s the catch? Actually, it’s in the mirror. A significant part of the equation is whether the student has more self-confidence than self-doubt. It’s a battle that will be waged over the years in imperceptible daily encounters that either become springboards or stumbling blocks.

My appearances are an outgrowth of “By the Numbers,” a weekly column I’ve written since August 1997. Topics have included the amazing Fibonacci sequence, the origin of 7-Eleven’s name and the Pareto Principle (the well-supported hypothesis that 20 percent of people are responsible for 80 percent of results).

As fun as it is to produce a weekly column with such infinite potential, the more compelling stories unfold in the classroom, where Tony’s blank gaze remains even after the motivational metaphor about that elephant. Still in a jungle of confusion, the boy swivels his head at the sound of his peers’ giggles and rubs the chalk between his thumb and index finger.

Only moments earlier, he had eagerly raised his hand, confidently indicating he could apply this strange new mathematical principle. Now, he isn’t so sure, but at least he’s willing to give it a shot.

That’s the other, related message I repeatedly slip into young scholars’ minds. Try. It’s not only OK, but essential to experience failure if you want to build a foundation for success. Sadly, the world often sends the opposite message: Play it safe, don’t rock the boat, stay in your comfort zone.

Aren’t you glad Thomas Edison kept stretching his comfort zone? Think he was a failure because it took him thousands of tries before his many inventions?

Tony is still staring blankly at the number when I ask him to add 2 and 3 together.

“5?” he asks, his confidence rattled.

“Exactly! Now where do you put the number 5?” Tentatively, he scrawls the number in the narrow space between the 2 and 3, then looks up to me for the first sign of approval since he so boldly volunteered what must seem an eternity ago.

“Yes,” I nod. “Hey, everyone, give Tony a hand. Good job.” He returns to his seat amid a smattering of applause, enough to drown out a few classmates’ snickers.

He hasn’t quite mastered the 11 Sandwich, but if nothing else, I hope he has learned that it is better to try and risk appearing foolish than to remain ignorant.

After all, why kid yourself into thinking you’re a success when you’re barely biting into the variety of flavors life has to offer? I’ll take nibbling at that elephant any day.

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