The Answer In The Back Of The Book

Ah Dr. Vander Beek. If it were not for him, Happy Calories Don’t Count likely would never have existed. No, he’s not a medical doctor, psychologist or psychiatrist – he was my college calculus professor. And one fine day he said something that forever changed the course of my life.

I began my freshman year on the computer science/engineering track. And since I wouldn’t turn in homework unless I knew for sure that I already had the correct answers, I spent many afternoons across his desk during office hours.

One day I was close to tears. I’d done a homework problem over and over – always getting the same answer – and not the answer that was in the back of the book. I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong. In his kind and gentle way, he worked through the problem himself and got an answer – my answer. Then he said, “Books can have mistakes in them. And you know, Carmela, in real life there are no answers in the back of the book!

At the time, that comment was so terrifying that I immediately changed majors. But now I can take comfort in his wisdom.

There are no “correct” answers in Life. There are only decisions and choices we make to the best of our ability with the information we have in the moment. There are only perceptions and perspectives we choose that bring us closer to pain or bring us closer peace.

To navigate these Life decisions, choices, perceptions and perspectives, I still use the critical thinking and problem solving skills developed through the plethora of calculus story problems. (Remember that Far Side cartoon of Hell’s Library? It’s full of story problems…)

Story problems teach us how to apply various principles and concepts to real life situations. We are given certain information – information that is often incomplete, and information that is sometimes irrelevant to the issue at hand. We learn to discern what information is needed and how to solve for what information is missing. We learn how to ignore the shiny objects, and how to put the information together to get an answer.

The answer won’t be in the back of the book. But if it brings us closer to a feeling of peace or freedom or happiness, we’ll know we have done well.