Let me set the scene.
You’re 11 years old in a strange place, surrounded by friends, family, and classmates. Your stomach is filled with butterflies and you’re sweating so much that your glasses start sliding off your face. There are cameras everywhere. The girl sitting next to you nudges your arm. You’re up to the mic next.
As I scrolled through hundreds of cable channels one lazy, Sunday afternoon, I noticed ESPN’s rebroadcast of the 2008 Scripps National Spelling Bee. Scripps isn’t just any Bee. It’s the one where 200 of America’s most talented kids compete for an engraved trophy and $50,000. I tuned in. Aside from a new vocabulary, it turns out I had a lot to learn from those kids. Here are my top five takeaways.
#1 Most people are clueless about your dream.
It sounds harsh, but it’s true. Spellers spend years trying to qualify, and thousands of dollars on tutors and special programs. Meanwhile, most Americans have no idea the competition even exists. It doesn’t make their dreams any less important. Keep going.
#2 Take your time.
Did you know there’s a shot clock for spelling bees? After spellers are given a word, they have exactly two minutes to try and spell it. I was shocked at how many took advantage of their full allotment. Don’t be ashamed of taking time with big decisions; champions don’t rush.
#3 Ask all the questions.
“Language of Origin? Alternate pronunciations? Can you repeat it? Use it in a sentence?” These are all questions that spellers can ask judges — as much as they want. They’re doing more than stalling. Contestants ask questions to give themselves a more informed shot at success. Allow yourself to do the same.
#4 Spell something!
Can you spell aurelian, cryptarithm, or hemeralopia? Probably not. But neither can most of these wiz kids. Still, their guesses are often successful. Scripps kids spend hours honing their craft. But so have you. You know that project you’ve been meaning to start? Trust your instincts and spit something out. You just might surprise yourself.
#5 Look behind you.
Guerdon. G-u-e-r-d-o-n. In 2008, those 7 letters kept 13-year old Sidharth Chand from $50,000. Can you imagine? You are going to lose something really important to you too. The key is who’s behind you. At Scripps, every contestant has close family members seated a few feet behind the spotlight. They cheer on and console their spellers, especially when they fail. Let yourself cry in the arms of those who love you. You’ll be back next year.