When you won’t know until you try…

“How do you tell for certain that a cantaloupe is ripe?” I once asked my Uncle while restocking the melon display. My Uncle is a fruit and vegetable expert. He is a New England farmer who has grown and sold plants and produce in Pepperell, Massachusetts for decades.

Ripe cantaloupe

When I asked him about the cantaloupe, I was a college student earning tuition money by waiting on customers who frequented the fruit and vegetable stand that my Uncle owns.


To that point, in my life, I’d tried a number of techniques to select a ripe melon. I’d tried holding the melon to my ear, knocking my knuckles on the outer rind, and listening for a hollow sound. I’d tried sniffing the end where the stem had once been to see if I could detect a sweet, fruity smell. I’d tried examining the melons to find one with a light-colored oval on the skin—I’d heard a light-colored oval was a sure sign that the melon had ripened in the patch.

None of my methods really worked. Finding a ripe melon took a lucky guess. I wondered if the expert could teach me a more certain way.

In answer to my question, my uncle’s loud voice boomed, “There is a sure way to find a ripe melon. Hand me one of those melons.”

“Which one?”

“Doesn’t matter.”

I tossed him a melon. He pulled a jackknife from his dungarees pocket. He held the melon in one large hand and with the other hand, used the jackknife to cut a wedge. He stabbed the wedge with his knife and held it up for me to see. “That’s not ripe.” He tossed the wedge and the melon into a bucket of scraps intended for the pigs.

“Toss me another melon.”

I did. He cut into the melon and held the wedge up for me to see. “Let’s taste this one.” He scooped the seeds into the scrap bucked and took a bite of the melon flesh. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “That melon is perfect. Do you want to taste it?”

I took a bite from the wedge he offered me. The melon was tasty. It was the kind of melon I want every time I search for a ripe melon.

“Is there another way to find ripe melons? I can’t exactly go into stores with a jackknife and start cutting melons open.”

“Which is why you work here,” he said, pocketing his jackknife and moving the bucket of scraps under the counter with his work boot.

When it comes to selecting melons, the expert says you don’t know if they’re ripe until you try them.

There are other aspects of life that include the same degree of unpredictability. And they are not my favorite aspects of life.

Recently, I was talking to my brother-in-law about the pros and cons of an action I wanted to take. I wondered aloud if the act I was contemplating would secure positive results. He listened to me dither for a moment and then said, “I know one thing for sure.”

He’s a successful business man and an executive coach. Clients pay a lot of money for his advice. I leaned in and waited with great anticipation for his wise words.

“You won’t know until you try,” he said.

I scowled at him. I had wanted some new advice. Something I hadn’t heard before. Something that guaranteed a positive outcome.

For I am risk averse. I like to set my sights and spend my energies on sure things. “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush…” is my default motto.

But what if success and well-being are enhanced when you try really hard when results are uncertain?

In a recent presentation, Angela Duckworth, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who studies grit and resilience, encouraged listeners to set stretch goals and then practice to reach them with 100% focus. Talent counts, she said, but effort counts twice.

So all those tasks on my bucket list? The things I want to do, but won’t know if they’re possibilities for me until I try?

What if I won’t know until I put in the effort of trying and then trying again? What if the trying is really more valuable than the knowing or the succeeding?

I know I need more practice at this type of trying and that’s why I (sort of) like biking hills. (That and the fact that if you’re going to bike in Central Pennsylvania, you’re going to bike hills.)

When I set out to bike a hill, I wonder: Will I be able to peddle to the top? Or not?

When my sister and I were young, we often rode our bikes about a mile to Miss Corey’s house for our piano lessons.

Playing the piano was not my favorite activity. I mean, I really wanted to know how to play, but I did not want to try very diligently to make that happen and somehow my skills didn’t improve.

However, after the lesson, I enjoyed biking home with my sister. We had a friendly contest to see who could peddle up the big hill that was on the way.

The hill rose in two tiers. We developed a strategy to conquer it. Get your speed up. Stand up. Peddle as fast as you can. Make it up the first hump. Pedal slowly and get your breath back. The second tier was a little steeper and sometimes we had to get off our bikes and walk. But sometimes, we made it. And I loved reporting at dinner that although piano hadn’t gone so great. I’d pedaled up the Mill Hill.

Over the years, I’ve become even better at hills. My bike has (many) more gears and I’ve developed a strategy. A way of enthusiastically coaching myself as I pedal up the hill. Sometimes, I count the rotations: Pedal hard for twenty. Take it easy for twenty. Or sometimes I pick a spot a few feet in front and tell myself: I can make it that far.

This past summer, my husband Steve and I went to Southern Virginia to visit The Virginia Creeper Trail which is a train route converted into a bike path that follows a river for many miles.  For 17 miles the trail climbs 2000 feet to White Top, Virginia. Most people take shuttles to the White Top and coast the 17 miles down the mountain.

But I said to Steve, “We should try riding up and down. We ride hills all the time in Pennsylvania. I think we can make it from Damascus to White Top.

“We won’t know until we try,” Steve said.

It took us 3.5 hours of slow pedaling. The trail follows an old railroad track so the incline was gradual. We made it and the 2.5 hour glide down was a great reward for all our diligent effort.

Trying doesn’t always lead to success, but I’m working to develop a hardy mindset. I’m going to see if I can change my default motto from the bird in the hand saying to: if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

Just past White Top...
At trail’s end. Tired, but satisfied. 

VCT steve at end

VCT steve cooling off
Steve getting cooled off on the way down.



Author: Faith McDonald

I'm a writer and writing teacher. I live in Central Pennsylvania with my husband Steve. I have three amazing children, Matt, Phil and Cara. I love to read, My favorite book is often the one I'm currently reading. I love to cook. I try new recipes often; sometimes, even when company is coming--not a good idea. Once in awhile the meal turns out. I enjoy being outdoors and active. I love to bike with my friends and to cross-country ski.

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