Teju Ravilochan – TRANSCRIPT
Most of my adult life I’ve been fascinated by two questions: “How do we solve impossible problems?” and “How do I get an intelligent, funny, beautiful woman to go out with me?” I’m starting to suspect the answers to these two very different questions actually share a lot of overlap. That’s because of something that happened to me in college.
When I was in college, I was terrified of asking women on dates to the degree that a group of my friends and I formed a pact that next time we met a woman who interested us for whatever reason, we had to ask her on a date. And a couple of weeks later, I met this woman named Alison. She walked into a classroom, I was walking out of it, and my jaw literally dropped. I have almost never seen a woman this beautiful in my entire life. Of course, I could never speak to her. I ran away and tried not to talk to her for as long as I possibly could.
One day, I’m sitting in the student center at my university, at CU-Boulder, and I see her sitting 30 yards away working on her computer. I’m sitting with my friends Daniel and Ben with whom I’ve made this pact. I’m really freaking out, all of a sudden. They say, “What’s going on, man?” I say, “Well, there’s a girl, Alison, you know, she’s really beautiful.”
“Dude, you got to ask her on a date.”
I say, “No, that’s not what I’m going to do.”
They say, “Yes, it is. You’ve made this pact, you have to do it.”
They keep pushing me, I keep resisting. Eventually, I’m like, “Oh my God, OK.” I stand up, and she’s 30 yards away. I take those first steps toward her. Have any of you in the audience ever asked somebody on a date before? You know the terror-inducing phenomenon that this is. Because my body has never been in life or death situation, but this is the closest I’ve ever come. My heart starts racing trying to escape my chest and run away.
My lungs are unable to draw upon air, my palms are sweating, my throat is dry. And I walk up to Alison, and I say, “Hey, Alison.” Actually, it was more like, “Hey, Alison.” My voice literally cracks. She stands up, and she’s like, “Oh, ehm.”
I say, “Teju.”
She says, “Yes, Teju, hi.”
We talk for a while. I have no idea what she’s saying, because in the meantime, I’m thinking about what I’m about to do, and the thought of it is so terrifying that I’m physically quivering. My body is shaking. And so I make a deadly fatal mistake. I rest my hand on a table in order to steady myself, but unfortunately, if you’ll recall, my palms are sweaty, so I do this. I hit my hip on the table, and she’s like, “Are you OK?” In my head, I’m like, “I am so not OK.”
But at this point, I’ve lost all dignity so I might as well just go for it, “Alison, this is crazy, but would you ever go on a date with me?”
And she’s so kind, and so thoughtful, and she says, “No.” Apparently, she doesn’t date, she is really focused on herself at this time, we talk for a little while. I go back to my table, sit down with Daniel and Ben. They say, “Dude, what happened?” I tell them what happened, I tell them the story.
But something amazing happened to me on this day, something that changed my life forever. And that is the fact that I survived. Leading into this moment, in that 30 yards between where I stood and where Alison sat, thoughts entered my head that were unbelievable. My brain was like, “What are you doing, man? Turn around, don’t do this, because when you ask her, she’s going to slap you across the face, call you a creep, everyone around is going to pay attention looking at you like, ‘What were you thinking?’ and I’ll be so devastated, my friends will shame me, I won’t have the courage ever again to do this, I’ll lose all confidence, and probably spend my life penniless and alone in my parents’ basement.”
But none of that happened. She was sweet, she said it made her day, my friends treated me like a hero, and nobody bothered to look up from their computers or whatever else they were doing. None of the things I feared actually took place. And in this moment, on this day, I realized: this wasn’t impossible for me. Asking a woman on a date was not impossible. It was merely difficult.
So now, if I was going to find love – that quest didn’t end – I had to do this again, and I did, again and again and again, and most of the time, the answer that I got was ‘no.’ But on a rare occasion, someone said ‘yes.’ And on a rarer occasion still, that ‘yes’ turned into lasting and meaningful love, which was what I was after the entire time. What I learned from this story is that if we’re willing to try things we believe are impossible, we realize, in fact, they are indeed possible, just difficult, perhaps.
If we’re willing to attempt again and again, we increase the likelihood that we actually succeed. And along the way, there is never a way we can do something so difficult for us without the help and belief of our friends. Daniel and Ben held me accountable to what was impossible for me.
So my question now is what can we learn from love and its pursuit about how we pursue the impossible. If you think about love, it’s so improbable to happen between any two people. There is 7 billion people on a planet for you to find one person who you can spend the rest of your life with, who shares your values, who’s in a height range that’s similar to yours. Those kinds of things are so improbable, and yet, we all believe so much in the worthwhile pursuit of love that we’re willing to risk again and again and again a heartbreak in order to find it.
So my contention to each of you: it is the same skillset that we require in order to pursue the impossible, and I want to share a few stories to that effect. The first one is about attempting: what it takes to convert something from impossible to difficult by attempting? That’s a story about Tim Ferriss. Some of you may have heard of him. He is the author of “The 4-Hour Workweek”, “The 4-Hour Body”, “The 4-Hour Chef.” He does everything in four hours. As a consequence, he is a famous New York Times bestseller, he gets invited all over the place to speak.
One of the places he got invited to speak was Princeton University, his Alma Mater. So he speaks to this room of 300 MBA students, and midway through his speech, he says, “I want to try something, an experiment. I will challenge you guys to something, and if any of you succeeds, I’ll give you a fabulous prize. So, stick around after the class to find out what it is.”
Of the 300 students, 20 stick around to find out what this challenge is. And here is the challenge. It’s to reach out three seemingly impossible people to connect with: Bill Clinton, Richard Branson, and Oprah. Whoever makes the most progress in reaching out to them will win paid for by Tim Ferriss a free round trip ticket anywhere they want in the entire world; the delightful, wonderful prize! Tim Ferriss says he’ll come back in a week to assess the winner and award the prize. He comes back a week later, and he is shocked by the result of this experiment. How many students would you guess, out of 20, attempted this challenge?
(Audience) Two. Four. Five. Two.
Teju Ravilochan: One? Eighteen? All of them? Zero. Zero students attempted this challenge. They explained that they were busy, they had finals, their brother was in town, something like that, but the truth is all of them felt people would do better than they would and that this task was impossible. Tim Ferriss was very disappointed, and what he said was, “If anyone had so much as drafted an email that said ‘Dear Bill’, they would’ve won!” What is remarkable about this is that people are so afraid of something that is impossible, we’re not even willing to attempt, but let me tell you something that is in common about every single person who has ever received an email reply from Bill Clinton.
They wrote him an email. They attempted. So, it’s critical that we attempt, but it is not enough because if we’re tackling impossible problems, one attempt isn’t likely enough to work most of the time. We need to try again and again and again. To that affect, there is a story that I love from my favorite podcast “This American Life.” Some of you may know of it. Yes. It’s a story about prime numbers. You guys remember prime numbers. Numbers like 3 and 7 that are divisible only by themselves and 1?.
For thousands of years, mathematicians have been wondering: how can we predict large prime numbers? We know them when they’re small, but how do we know them when they’re 10 digits large, 16 digits large, and so forth? In 1644, a French mathematician named Marin Mersenne came up with an algorithm he believed could predict large prime numbers. And the algorithm was: 2 to the “n” minus 1, where “n” is a prime number. Let’s try it: two to the power three is Eight! Very good! Minus one is seven. That’s a prime number. Two to the power five is? Thirty-two. I heard it, yes. Minus one is thirty-one. Excellent! This algorithm seems to work.
So, Marin Marsenne published a paper where he detailed this algorithm, and he said that one example, the largest number he could find, was 2 to the 67 minus 1. But unfortunately, he didn’t offer any proof for this, and mathematicians demand proof. You probably had math teachers saying, “Show me your work! Give me the proof!” But he didn’t have that, and he passed away after publishing this paper.
So for hundreds of years, mathematicians didn’t really know whether or not this algorithm was actually true. Until 1903, 259 years later, when at the American Mathematical Society convention a guy named Frank Nelson Cole was slated to speak on the factorization of large primes. When he was called up to speak, he walks up in front of everyone to a blackboard, doesn’t say a word, he picks up the only piece of chalk that’s there, and he writes on the board: 2 to the 67 minus 1 equals – and then he writes a 21-digit number.
He goes to the other side of the blackboard, still says nothing, and he writes a 12-digit number, underneath it he writes a 9-digit number, he writes a multiplication sign, and a bar, and he proceeds to do a row multiplication the way we learned in the third grade 1 times 9 is 9; 2 times 7 is 14. Put down the 4, carry the 1 – like this. Three hundred of the country’s best mathematicians are in the room, and nobody is saying a word, because suddenly, it is clear what is at stake.
And Frank Nelson Cole proceeds doing this multiplication for one hour, one wordless hour with 300 mathematicians transfixed, ensuring that he’s multiplying and adding all of his numbers right. And at the end of this wordless hour, Frank Nelson Cole writes down a 21-digit number, equal to the 21-digit number on the other side of the board. Instantly, 300 mathematicians stand up and throw at him a thunderous applause because they have just witnessed history. A 259-year-old mathematical riddle laid to a rest forever because of this guy and his chalkboard mathematics. Incredible! But that’s not even the most interesting part of the story.
The most interesting part of the story is how Frank Nelson Cole figured this out. Apparently, it took him three years of Sundays, meaning that he sat in his study every Sunday for three years, and he wrote up this 21-digit number, and he would divide it by one number, and then that wouldn’t work. He’d divide it by the next number, and the next number, and the next number, and so forth, and so on, and for 155 Sundays, he failed. But on Sunday 156, he succeeded. And he changed history: for mathematicians, probably, not for you and me.
But what is remarkable about this story is that you or I could do this, we could do this mathematics, it’s not that complicated, but nobody in 259 years was willing to engage in this kind of relentless trial and error. What motivated Frank Nelson Cole to do this? I submit that it was love. This story was told in a book by a man named Paul Hoffman about the man who only loved numbers. It was this man’s love of numbers, this passion that fueled him to address this issue. The word “passion” comes from Latin, it means “suffering.”
When I think about passion, I think, “What are we willing to suffer through, what do we love so much that we’re willing to pursue despite failure again and again?” And indeed, love is one of those things because almost every one of us pursue love even though we know the risks are a devastating heartbreak. Not once, but again and again and again. That is what it takes to change the world: real people trying and failing, and trying and failing, again and again, and it is not glamorous, and it is not magic.
But there is one part of the story that doesn’t set well with me. No one was going to do this in 259 years because it took so much work, so much trial and error. So, what if Frank Nelson Cole had made this difficult problem approachable? What if he had asked for help? Imagine, Frank Nelson Cole getting ten college students together and saying, “You get to work with me, a brilliant mathematician. I’m solving a huge mathematical riddle. I’ll buy you beer afterwards. All you have to do is to take this section of numbers and divide them a few times. You take this section, you take this section, and so forth.”
Instead of taking 156 Sundays to figure out this problem, it could have taken him one tenth of the time 156 Sundays. Less than a college semester. Now imagine, if you put a 100 people in a lecture hall and assigned each of them a section of numbers, could you have solved a problem in one hundredth of the time? 156 Sundays rather than 156. When it comes to solving the world’s most impossible problems: poverty, climate change, the kinds of things that Eric is working on, the kinds of things that Mr Zhang is working on, we don’t have the luxury of the proverbial 156 Sundays. We have to move faster and pick up the pace, and the only way to do that is to let go of our attachment to seeking credit, and invite others to help us. We mobilize many people increasing the rapidity at which we’re able to make attempts in solving huge problems.
So, where does this leave us? My argument to each of you is that if you have the courage to seek love, if you’re willing to face a heartbreak, to be supportive and helped by your friends, and you have the humility to accept that help, then you also have the ability to tackle the impossible. In each and every single one of us exists that ability. So long as we attempt, often, with help. Thank you.