The other day, I was showing my freshman Physics students how to calculate the instantaneous velocity of an accelerating object . . . an object that is speeding up, or slowing down. In this case, the object we were discussing was speeding up. The object was the NYC L train leaving the station at 3rd Ave and 14th street. We had gone down to the subway station as a class (there’s an adrenaline inducer) and collected distance-time data using stopwatches and a measuring wheel. We received odd looks from commuters, and collected some fairly useful data.
Back in the classroom, the students first calculated the average velocity of the train for each time interval. Then, using the concept that the average velocity is the sum of velocities at the beginning and end of the time interval divided by two, they began to calculating the instantaneous velocities. So, they had to do a lot of multiplying the average velocities by two, as the subway train started from rest.
And the following conversation ensued:
Student: “I did it. I multiplied the average velocity by two.”
Me: “Great. Now keep doing it.”
Student, with alarm in his eyes: “Until when?”
Me: “Until you’ve done it for the whole data set. For both trains.” (We did two trials!)
Student, with more alarm: “You mean ALL the data points?”
Student, after a long sigh: “That’s annoying.”
Me: “I know. Welcome to life.”
A few students gasped. I continued. I told them I was completely serious. And that life has some magical, fantastic, beautiful parts, and some incredibly annoying, mind-numbing, tedious parts. And they are all important. And the mind-numbing tedious parts typically lead to some kind of reward.
I like how becoming a parent has drastically increased my tolerance for the annoying mind-numbing parts of life, and has enhanced my appreciation of the magical parts. And of course, given me more of each kind of moment.
But I feel like it’s essential to truly be able to sink into and appreciate the annoying parts. Just get’em done, with minimal drama. Multiply that column of numbers by two. Scrub a surface until it’s clean. Edit 100 pages for typos. Make 5,893 sawing motions into a pumpkin. To embark on a task that is repetitive and annoying and just do it. And then reap the fruits of your labor.
I like that we had that conversation that day in class. When I think about what they will take away from freshman Physics, it’s hard to imagine more than a few of them will remember the details of analyzing the acceleration and velocity of a moving object. But I’m hoping the class will help them appreciate the ubiquity of annoying minutiae in life, the importance of doing them, and the rewards you reap when are you through.
Post-Script: This is the same class in which a few weeks prior, I paced around the room, hands cupped over my mouth, repeating “MAKING A GRAPH IS NOT A HARDSHIP”. No one complains about making graphs anymore. Progress.