The McGill fitness centre has a standing calf machine. It’s like this machine, but includes a stack of weights. Likely because it’s easy to use and targets the calves, it’s a favorite among women. Over the past two years I’ve noticed that many girls have difficulty adjusting the height of the shoulder rests. The difficulty arises because the arms supporting the rests are heavy. To adjust the height you need to pull a pin to release the arms, but the weight of the arms puts pressure on the pin and makes it difficult to remove. The solution is simple: press up slightly on the arms before trying to pull the pin. Anybody with a modicum of strength can handle that. Despite this, I’ve observed many girls react by assuming they’re not strong enough to work the machine. At least once a week I see a girl walk up to the machine, notice that it’s at a bad height, and then fail to adjust the arms. They will then try to use it awkwardly as is, or else walk away (if I’m nearby I’ll usually offer help). In either case they give up adjusting without even entertaining the possibility that a design flaw might be the problem, rather than their own strength.
This reminds me of some advice that math prof Mike Roth gave me while an undergraduate at Queen’s: he said that to solve math problems, you’ve got to have confidence in yourself. This is nothing deep, it’s really just your standard “think positively” remark. But the novelty of applying a positive attitude to esoteric activities like mathematics, or mundane activities like adjusting a fitness machine, really struck me. There are cases where having confidence in yourself is obviously beneficial: before a job interview, while teaching in front of a class or, closer to the subject above, while lifting weights. Anybody that has stood beneath a mass of iron for a squat understands how important it is to have confidence in oneself (although it can only go so far —
no amount of positive thinking was going to help that guy). But there’s no reason to reserve this attitude for such obvious activities. Think positively about everything. In particular, don’t let societal prejudices pigeonhole you into thinking negatively about yourself.