How Many Times Does it Take to Get it Right?

by Roger Reid

I’ll never forget being asked that question.

My second grade teacher was annoyed with my lack of immediate comprehension of subtraction, especially the part about “borrowing ten from the number on the left and adding it to the number on the right,” to keep the process going.

“How many times do we have to repeat this until you get it right?”

My seven-year-old brain didn’t know how to answer her. Later on, I would realize her question was rhetorical. She already knew the answer—as many times as necessary. She would continue to show me and I would continue to try to understand until one day, she would hand me back my graded subtraction test with a big red 100 percent at the top.

So why was she so frustrated? Because she knew she wasn’t going to give up.

But I didn’t know that.

I thought she was mad at me, that I’d done something wrong. So I sat there, afraid—afraid to act, afraid to tell her I wanted to understand just as bad as she wanted me to.

teacher pointing to problem while boy student watches

So I continued plodding along, hating the process, not realizing that sometimes it’s the only way to learn—spending time on it every day, putting up with the confusion, unaware of the progress I was making.

Feeling that way is not limited to seven year old boys.

I have friends who are going through the same thing right now. Frustrated with their lives, they desperately want to change things, but they feel “locked in,” unable to break the strangle-hold of a bad break at work or a spouse who walked out on them.

These are real people.

One of them buys lottery tickets, and then prays every night he’ll win the big jackpot.

Another recalls the damages from three failed marriages, then assures me the time he spent with those women didn’t count, because he’s still waiting to meet the true love of his life—at age 63.

And then there’s Sheri, who breaks my heart every time she tells me about the latest diet program she’s bought, because she’s sure this one is going to work, and in a few months she’ll lose that extra fifty pounds that keeps her on insulin and hammers her with embarrassment every time she has to ask for the seat belt extender on a commercial flight.

I’ve known all of them long enough to realize how much they want to change their lives. And yet, I’m still watching them drag themselves through one day after another, getting by on nothing but hope—until even that runs dry.

I suppose this is where I could give you three easy steps on how to bring about automatic transformation, or offer a new book that promises to replace all the problems you’re facing with oodles of money, vibrant health, and a magical way to attract the perfect life partner. But chances are, you’ve already read those books. Chances are your bookshelves are lined with them, your Kindles are full of them.

Good. That means you know the drill. You’ve heard the stories. You understand the terms.

More important, you learned the most important lesson of all: What works for others may not necessarily work for you.

For example, there’s a management guru who preaches discipline as the secret to success in life. But every time I hear the word “discipline,” I immediately think punishment. Not a motivator for me. Punishment is what I move away from . . . every time.

So what does work? Is there really a universal solution, a master “key” that’s effective for the majority who try it?

Remember that seven-year-old?

He kept trying. He didn’t give up. Because his teacher wouldn’t let him.

Find that person who won’t let you give up.

Tell them what you need. If you want them to hold you accountable for your actions—or the lack of them—make that clear. If you need a hug, a phone call, a text during the day to let you know they’re on your side, tell them. Then tell them something else—that you’re counting on them. That they’re going to make a difference in your life—they might even end up saving it.

Make it clear you’re asking them to become your lifeline, and they must not let you down.

Man helping to pull a woman up the mountain

You’ll need to look past your bookshelf for a lifeline. Sometimes it can be a family member. Sometimes not—especially if it’s a relationship with a relative you want to change.

It’s usually best to look outside of the issue you’re going to work on. If your goal is to change your work situation, don’t choose a co-worker. If you want to lose weight, avoid the gal you met at Weight Watchers—she has challenges of her own. And picking a single, skirt-chasing, womanizer to help you find the love of your life has so many things wrong with it, we won’t even go there.

What if the answer is No?

What if the person you’ve asked to be your lifeline tells you they don’t have the time or turns you down by assuring you that you don’t need their help, and that they would just get in your way?

Don’t take rejection personally. If it’s not the right person, you need to know that upfront. Their self-disqualification will save you from having to cut them loose later.

Here’s one way to start: Make two lists. The first will be possible candidates. The second a description of exactly what you need from them. Don’t be afraid to make this very detailed. You need to be clear on your expectations so you can convey them accurately.

Factor the first list against the second. If you can’t see a particular individual doing what you need them to do, eliminate them from consideration. You want someone who demonstrates the required qualities naturally. Otherwise, they won’t bring it when you need it the most.

What about using a professional life coach? Depends. One size does not fit all. A professional mentor, life-coach, or life-guide will typically have some kind of training in motivation and organizational skills. But whether or not they’re going to “fit” your situation depends on what you need from an effective lifesaver.

For example, do you need accountability, someone to hold you to your plan, to step up with tough-love when you start slacking off? On the flip side, a good accountability partner will also be quick to recognize and point out your progress, even when it comes in small amounts. The “atta-girl” you receive for maintaining your gym schedule for three weeks in a row can provide re-enforcement during week four, when it would be so easy to stay home because you’re tired, or need to catch up on the laundry, or get ready for a big presentation at work the next day.

Woman holding up a sign asking for help

Finally, asking for help is not a show of weakness. There’s no shame or embarrassment in asking for help. From a potential lifeline’s perspective, it’s flattering to be asked. It says you value this person’s place in your life. And more important, you trust them.

Does it work?

It did for me. I can subtract with the best of them now. It took most of the school year, but I learned, because my second grade teacher refused to give up on me—more important, she refused to let me give up on myself.

Knowing others care about your progress will give you courage, a sounding board, someone who will listen to you when the frustration has you climbing the walls, when improvement seems too slow to measure, when you’re ready to give up. It doesn’t matter if you call them a mentor, coach, trainer, or accountability partner. Just give them a place in your life and let them help you in getting from where you are to where you want to be.