Determination, hope, success

The following is excerpted from How to Solve It: a new aspect of mathematical method by George Polya. The title of this post is kept the same as the original section title in the book.

It would be a mistake to think that solving problems is a purely “intellectual affair”; determination and emotions play an important role. Lukewarm determination and sleepy consent to do a little something may be enough for a routine problem in the classroom. But, to solve a serious scientific problem, will power is needed that can outlast years of toil and bitter disappointments.

Determination fluctuates with hope and hopelessness, with satisfaction and disappointment. It is easy to keep on going when we think that the solution is just around the corner; but it is hard to persevere when we do not see any way out of the difficulty. We are elated when our forecast comes true. We are depressed when the way we have followed with some confidence is suddenly blocked, and our determination wavers.

… “You can undertake without hope and persevere without success.” Thus may speak an inflexible will, or honor and duty, or a nobleman with a noble cause. This sort of determination, however, would not do for the scientist, who should have some hope to start with, and some success to go on. In scientific work, it is necessary to apportion wisely determination to outlook. You do not take up a problem, unless it has some interest; you settle down to work seriously if the problem seems instructive; you throw in your whole personality if there is a great promise. If your purpose is set, you stick to it, but you do not make it unnecessarily difficult for yourself. You do not despise little successes, on the contrary, you seek them: If you cannot solve the proposed problem try to solve first some related problem.

When a student makes really silly blunders or is exasperatingly slow, the trouble is amost always the same; he has no desire at all to solve the problem, even no desire to understand it properly, and so he has not understood it. Therefore, a teacher wishing seriously to help the student should, first of all, stir up his curiosity, give him some desire to solve the problem. The teacher should also allow some time to the student to make up his mind, to settle down to his task.

Teaching to solve problem is education of the will. Solving problems which are not too easy for him, the student learns to persevere through unsuccess, to appreciate small advances, to wait for the essential idea, to concentrate with all his might when it appears. If the student had no opportunity in school to familiarize himself with the varying emotions of the struggle for the solution his mathematical education failed in the most vital point.


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