A  quote that reshaped my life came from a mathematical textbook.

I’ve remembered it as “what one fool can do, so can another,” but in full form it is:

Being myself a remarkably stupid fellow, I have had to teach myself the difficulties, and now beg to present to my fellow fools the parts that are not hard. Master these thoroughly, and the rest will follow. What one fool can do, another can. (source)

This is from the remarkable textbook Calculus Made Easy by Silvanus P. Thompson, originally published in 1910. I learned calculus from this book, which as given to me by my mentor, the great Virgil Matheson.


I was one of those straight-A students in high school, but I hated math. No, I take that back–I loved math but couldn’t stand the way it was taught. With the gift of a flimsy paperback, Virgil changed how I look at the world.

Someone who wrote a book on calculus must be pretty bright. But here they are freely calling themselves “remarkably stupid.” And then referring to the fearsome calculus as “not that hard.”

Mind. Blown. I didn’t hate mathematics, I hated being stuck in an ill-conceived system founded on shaky ideas of what was supposed to be inherently difficult. The cult of genius turned out to be a sham. And a few moments reflection revealed that this was true about much more than mathematics.

What’s holding you back? What are you assuming is simply way too difficult to tackle? What does the world look like if you challenge those assumptions?

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Photo credit: Olga Lednichenko on Flickr (CC/by)