welcome to the edge

For many years I had a friend who couldn’t spell all that well. Pete is a highly intelligent person, far better at math than I am, and from a family of engineers. He has a list of technical certifications as long as your arm; he’s usually rolling in cash from his high-paying tech job. He’s just a smart, successful network guy.

And he was never comfortable with his inability to spell well. He was always ashamed, and obviously felt inadequate and stupid. He isn’t a horrible speller; he just misspells commonly misspelled words like weird and probably and the like. I could never convince him of the innocence of his inability to spell perfectly, of how it was no indicator, to any reasonable person, of sub-par intelligence.

Which is very easy for me to say. Spelling is hardwired into my brain. Words almost have a taste to me. I know their habits. I never forget the face of a word. I hardy ever make spelling errors. Typos, yes. Spelling errors, almost never. It’s just one of those unfair, God-given competencies, like physical beauty or the ability to pig out all the time and not get fat. Except not nearly as good to have as those are.

I always comforted my friend, felt bad about his feelings of inadequacy. I’d tell him what I believed, what seemed obvious to me: that many brilliant people don’t spell well. That even some famous writers were poor spellers (supposedly F. Scott Fitzgerald is among this number). Pete had excuses for his inability to spell well. “I think I have dyslexia.” Please. He doesn’t have dyslexia, he just can’t spell.

And now I hear him in my own excuses in math. Here’s my big one: I have no sense of direction. Absolutely none. I have trouble understanding how objects relate to one another spatially. I get lost easily when driving somewhere new. And I believe this does affect my ability to do math, especially trig and work problems. But you know what? Mostly I just suck at math. Having no sense of direction stalls a person only so much.

So all your life you’ve known what you were doing, but here comes something you’ve never seen before. The edge of a precipice. The edge of your self. The edge of your ability. What does that feel like?

I honestly think it’s hard to recognize at first. First, quite naturally, come the excuses. I have dyslexia. I have no sense of direction. I don’t think this is necessarily vanity or even insecurity. I think it’s confusion and distress. To you your excuse is not an excuse, but an attempt to explain what you do not yet understand: why you fail when others do not. You flail and flounder, and you search for a reason. I’m older than they are, so math is harder for me. I have a job and an adult life, so I have less study time.

But perhaps what you are feeling is the edge. Your edge. The edge of your ability to do a thing well, if at all.

It’s true I have no sense of direction and that I get lost a lot. It’s true that I don’t have the time for homework that I would like. It’s true that I believe that these things affect my ability to do some problems. But mostly I think I am just working my edge.

I think that’s what an edge feels like — problems, failure, slowness, frustration. We come up with excuses because for many of us, these feelings and failures are new, and we are merely seeking to explain and understand them. It’s not like a warning light comes on above your left ear when you are about to hit the limit of your ability in some area of endeavor. You simply shift from ease to difficulty. And you stay there.

That’s what an edge really is. That shift from ease to difficulty, and staying there. Doing the thing again and again does make it easier, but it still stays pretty hard. Your progress is slow, your learning curve long and low. Things get not just hard, but utterly grueling.

And maybe when this happens we should just be humble and calm. Accept the edge. (Did you think you had no edges?) Maybe we can befriend the edge. Accept our limits, our slowness. Get help from those who can swim with sure strokes in those waters we flounder in. You don’t have dyslexia. You just can’t spell worth a damn. Welcome to the edge.

It’s said that calculus is the study of limits.

Sure is.

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