As I sat in the audience while my younger son competed in the county spelling bee, it was difficult to watch.  Partly because I was overly invested every time he stepped up to the microphone, and partly because of having to watch the devastation that befell many of the kids as they misspelled words.  It was even harder to witness on the rounds that included challenging words and easy ones.  For example, one round included ‘uncouquettish’ and ‘sugar’.  This did not seem fair.

When it was over, my son was frustrated he did not win, but overall, he handled it well.  He is more determined than ever to return and win it all next year.  While I appreciated his zeal, the whole process gave me pause.  Did the best speller in the county actually win, or did they happen to luckily get all the words they knew?  It seemed possible that while preparation could help a speller win, the luck of the draw impacted the outcomes for many contestants.  Did the kids learn about what it takes to be a success, or more likely, did they learn about the arbitrary nature of life?  Seems to me this was a more a lesson in learning life is not fair.

There has to be a better framework in which we can look at competition, success and reaching our potential.  At least I hope there is.  This is what led me to read Shawn Achor’s latest book, ‘Big Potential:  How Transforming the Pursuit of Success Raises Our Achievement, Happiness and Well-Being‘.   Mr. Achor’s work is always positive and inspiring helping us reframe how we look at the challenges of life. Below are a few quotes from Achor’s most recent book about reshaping what it means to be successful:

“Thanks to groundbreaking new research you will read about in this book, we now know that achieving our highest potential is not about survival of the fittest; it is survival of the best fit.  In other words, success is not just about how creative or smart or driven you are, but how well you are able to connect with, contribute to, and benefit from the ecosystem of people around you.  It isn’t just how highly rated your college or workplace is, but how well you fit in there.  It isn’t how many points you score, but how well you complement the skills of the team.”

To me this seems like a much better way to approach goals in life.  If you are looking at the bigger picture and contributing to success in a larger system, there is less pressure on individual achievement and more will be accomplished by working together.

“…-recognition that goes only to the highest performer–is Small Potential praise.  Small Potential  praise shines on one person already at the top, then flames out there.  Big Potential praise shines on the support system that made high performance possible.  That support system, whether it’s coworkers or family or friends, is your “base”–when you praise the base, you lift up the entire system that rests upon it.”

If we are able to help our kids understand successes are the result of many aspects, again they will see life in broader perspective.  Using my son in the spelling bee as an example, it took a village to get him there.  He had a highly supportive and engaged language arts teacher that emphasized proper spelling on assignments and tests. He had a family that quizzed him while making sure he carved out time to study.  In addition to these support systems, he had access to technology that structured spelling lessons making learning the words easier.  By realizing he was not alone in the process, it will be easier for him to bounce back from a letdown.  In addition, he will grow his empathy towards others as he acknowledges what they did to help him, and as he learns to appreciate all that goes into being successful, this will solidify how to be grateful.

Truly, the lesson to be learned here is that even if we are to achieve our ultimate dreams, whatever they may be, we will find a more fulfilling life and a more fulfilling success if we honor the greater good they got us there.

The more you help people find their light, the brighter you both will shine.

Written by Diana DeVaul, MSW and Parent

All highlighted quotes and excerpts can be found in Big Potential by Shawn Achor.

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