I have been helping my son, who is in 4th grade, with his math — specifically, multiplication.  He feels like he is a little bit behind, so we are working on it so he can get more comfortable.  It is going well now — we have gotten into a routine of spending 15 minutes per night doing a worksheet or a game, and talking through the math.

But when we first started, just a few weeks ago, it was much harder.  He really really resisted getting started, or engaging with it at all.  When it was time to start, he would shut down, turn away, and basically do anything so that we would not focus on the work.

I got a bit frustrated, because it felt like he was being his own worst enemy — basically making it impossible for himself to learn.  This is true, I think, but the more profound truth is that he was afraid.  Getting started was scary. Not knowing things was scary.  Knowing that he might be faced with not knowing things was scary.  Of course that’s what’s going on.

It reminds me a bit of when I was his age.  For me at the time, the thing that did that to me was writing.  When it came to sit down and write anything for school, I just completely stopped up.  My brain went blank.  It was inconceivable to me that any ideas, let alone words, sentences, paragraphs and pages, might come to be.  I remember sitting with my mother at her computer, with her doing her best to coax any kind of progress out of me. I was my own worst enemy — stuck, and afraid.

I feel it to this day. Sometimes I don’t want to open my inbox, or read that document I know I need to read, or open that envelope on my desk.  Of course, once I break through and do it, it’s fine. But there is sometimes a barrier of fear that gets in the way of even starting anything.

What I have found through my work with mindfulness is that step 1 is just recognizing it.  Noticing that sensation and saying, “oh, hey, there you are again”.  That is the first step to being able to work through it, rather than being owned by it. 

It has been a long time since I have felt the level of paralyzing fear that I saw in him, but now that I think about it, I know it and recognize it.

What’s profound about this to me is that sometimes the thing you think is the problem is not actually the problem.  Once you are able to identify the real problem, it’s much easier to find a way through.  Fear, I think, is often the problem behind the problem, and sussing that out and working on it directly can unlock a lot of situations.

13 comments on “Fear”

Having now read your Brock Holt post i also (Twain) see baseball (a highly statistical sport) as a way to frame mathematics as fun and not fear.

One way around this problem that works with people and also with children is to simply build in some type of success by starting with a part that you know you can easily do.

I am not a programmer (as I say frequently elsewhere) nor am I a writer however with both of those I have made money (lots of money) by following a simple principle. [1] I start with the smallest and easiest part that I can do and I build on the positive feelings (euphoria) of success and then I get inspiration and most importantly confidence and energy to do the more difficult parts. This is a technique I developed simply by being in tune with the way I feel not something (as I am proud to say) that I was told or that I read.

So with programming it’s literally doing the simplest part without any planning at all. Then adding to it. Think if you had to draw a picture of a house. You start with a simple drawing and then you keep adding onto the drawing until you have a big McMansion. Rather than “I need to draw a McMansion” you simply think “Let me draw a box, some windows and a door”. “Oh cool that looks good let me add some dormers and now let me make the garage on the side for three cars..” Make sense? To overwhelming if you think of it the other more difficult (to me) way.

With writing (in particular ‘pitches’) it’s more starting out with some kind of inspiration and then building on that and editing to perfection. Yes it takes practice but once you follow the formula it works really well. I didn’t plan out this comment. You said something I thought something then I wrote and added and edited until I liked what I wrote.

Important to point out that the things I am talking about for me are not my strong points in any way. But by simplifying the approach and breaking down to small bite size pieces I have found.

One other important point about your son and math. My stepson is a super whiz at math. As in mid 700’s SAT without studying in the 8th grade good. (And verbal very high as well). However he is not a hard worker and has a hard time overcoming adversity (because things come so easy to him.) So someone who is not great at math and who has to work hard may easily overtake my super talented stepson (in life) just because they have the right attitude and have to work harder.. Make sure your son isn’t discouraged by the brainy kids who seem to have no issues learning. Can’t stress that enough.

[1] I only say ‘money’ to show that whatever I am doing manages to either work to produce value (to me) or shows value to others so it must be effective in some way.

agree on both points- start with what you can do and get momentum towards bigger things. the reverse can be daunting, depending

and also on the value of overcoming adversity

One other thing that I just thought of along these lines. It’s also ok (and very ‘priming’) to have that success (that spurs you on) with something that is totally unrelated to the task at hand.

So let’s say the work involves coming into the office and writing a project proposal. And it’s a Sunday. And you haven’t even had coffee yet. And aren’t even particularly in the right state of mind to jump into that work. So instead you start by something simple and mindless. Like paying a few bills that need to be paid. And that takes no effort or thinking and is easy to do and takes maybe 20 to 40 minutes. (This example is for me you probably (or your son) don’t have this but I do so I will use to illustrate). So by the time you have done the easy job of paying the bills, and actually even while you are paying the bills, your mind, in the background, is beginning to think about the task at hand but isn’t forced to act on those thoughts right away. And then when you are done the super simple (and unrelated) task you are more ready to roll with it. I have found this helps a great deal. Note this is an example of an unexciting task specifically so that the contrast isn’t between fun or satisfying and ‘wow now I am in the same place even worse’. So it’s a bit different than the ‘build the house starting small’ in my parent comment.

Try introducing multiplication into everyday things. So, for example, when you’re at a baseball game and there’s a score. Ask him to multiple that up.

Then when it comes to the paper-based work, he’ll look forward to it more.

Check out Brilliant.org If he has a phone, download it. He can play it. Best social network in the world working together to have fun with math, science, computing etc.

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