If You Ever Want to Piss Someone Off, Tell Them They’re Not Trying

a young boy on a beach with a plastic shovel full of sand. his hand is thrown back and his eyes are closed as though he is trying very hard and expending a lot of effort
Image by popofatticus / CC BY

Unless what you’re trying to do is piss someone off or hurt their feelings, whatever you do, don’t tell them, “You didn’t even try.”

Because that’s not something you can possibly know.

Maybe you don’t like the results.

Maybe you’re dissatisfied.

And maybe you would have done a better job if you were in their shoes (but then again, maybe not).

But it’s 100% inappropriate and assumptive to tell another person they didn’t try, strictly based on the result of their attempt.


“If you’re not going to do a good job, don’t even bother,” she says.

And it’s like I’m back with my father at the dinner table. I was good at algebra. Word problems. But geometry threw me for a loop. I wasn’t used to analyzing spatial diagrams, parsing it into the problem space that I’d grown accustomed to. I knew abstraction. Symbols that I’d sort in an annex of my mind designed solely for this purpose.

But my geometry teacher had me looking at a damn map.

Me! A girl who could get lost in her own house.

I’d always been an A student when it came to math. After all, I was on the math team. I had awards to demonstrate that I kind of knew what I was doing. But on my first geometry exam? I got a C.

I just wasn’t getting it.

So my father sat down with me after a 12-hour shift with a 90-minute drive each way, still smelling of the chemicals they use to make paper, prepared to set me straight.

And who better to teach me?

My father lost his GI Bill the first semester of college because of his flat feet but took a job as a laborer. Sweat hard. Studied harder. He learned every technical aspect of what he was doing. Practically turned his supervisors upside down to shake knowledge from them like spare change. And over 2 decades of toil and study, he had become a self-made engineer. The head mechanical superintendent for a large construction firm.

And now he worked in heat and steam and decay not because he had to but because he loved it. He loved machines and what made them work. Loved fixing them when they didn’t. And designing better ones that would fare a little better.

I’ve never known anybody with a better sense of spatial awareness. Dad was famous among his colleagues for being able to draw freehand the layouts of buildings he hadn’t stepped in for years with incredible accuracy.

He would be the perfect geometry tutor.

And yet, we lasted a whole 10 minutes.

“You’re not even trying!” he said, when I wasn’t grasping what he was telling me.

My eyes filled with tears. “I am,” I protested. Didn’t he know? I wanted more than anything to impress him. There was just something I was missing, and I didn’t have the first clue what. I felt my epiglottis swell. I choked on it. Words wouldn’t come out.

“No, you’re not. You’re smarter than this,” he said. He got up from the dinner table and walked over to his recliner.

He never offered to help me with schoolwork again.

I made it through geometry somehow. I memorized things that seemed like they would help. Applied them clumsily. I even did extra credit assignments. I’m still not sure why Mr. Barker accepted them since they were only just barely related to the course.

The GRE and Triangles

It wasn’t until a decade and a half later when I was studying for my GREs that I finally got geometry.

With psychology research PhD programs, your quantitative reasoning score is of the utmost importance. Without a high one, your only hope of admission is having a slew of peer reviewed publications and/or nepotism. And as I sat, prepping for the test with practice exams, I realized that it didn’t matter how many MANOVAs I could do in my sleep (or y’know, anything else researchers might actually need to do math-wise), if I couldn’t get the hang of geometry, I’d be screwed.

Especially triangles. For some reason, the GRE writers freaking love triangles.

I looked at my answers on the practice exams. The ones I got wrong. And I took them to my husband, who is eerily like a less emotionally stunted version of my father (Freud would have a field day), except his toil and study involved doing oil lubes while he worked his way through an electrical engineering program and landed a job in software development. He changed oil at a garage right off the highway. Working on cars so hot from high speeds they burned his hands.

“I swear I’m trying,” I said.

He laughed. “I know you are.” And gently he showed me where I’d gone wrong.

“Wait,” I said. “What’s the name of that rule?”

“Hmm… it’s been a while,” he said. “I think it’s…. or maybe…”

I jotted down his guesses. “You’re the best.”

I took off to the internet to investigate my mistakes armed with disciplined Google Fu and enthusiasm.

Poring over the material, it finally clicked. It was like learning how to read a very specific kind of map. Once I knew the tricks, geometry wasn’t very hard at all.

And when it came to test time, I rocked it.

Sometimes the Problem Is Direction, Not Effort

Lack of trying was never my problem.

I just wasn’t trying the right way.

It turns out that what I needed all those years wasn’t to put in more effort but to set off in the right direction.

And that’s why I’ve made a personal promise not to tell people that they’re not trying, even when I’m unimpressed with the result.

I’ll let it slide if I don’t care.

And if I do care and want them to do better? I’ll try to figure out what they’re missing and be specific about that.


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