As many parents find out, we often learn just as much from our kids as they learn from us. This week’s life lesson is an example of that, so I’ve asked my 11-year-old son, Ben, to join me on the podcast. You can listen to that conversation by clicking the play button above, or you can read the (admittedly less entertaining) written version of the story below.
The Pinewood Derby Race
When my then seven-year-old son, Benjamin was in the Cub Scouts, one of his favorite activities was the Pinewood Derby. If you’re not familiar with it, here’s a quick primer. Each scout, with the help of a parent, builds a race car out of a block of wood about seven inches long. The car has to meet a few design criteria, like a maximum weight and a certain width of the wheels. But otherwise there’s a lot of creative license allowed.
Then on derby day, race officials place each car at the top of an inclined track about forty-five feet long. When let go, the cars race down the track pulled only by gravity. The first car to the bottom wins each heat. And electronic timers record every car’s time, so an overall winner can be identified.
In Ben’s pack, around sixty scouts compete each year, and they’re competing for two main trophies: Fastest Car and Best in Show. The fastest car trophy goes to the car with the best time of the day and is the most coveted of the prizes. Best in Show is the official name for what the boys generally refer to as the “coolest car.”
If you’ve never seen a Pinewood Derby race, it is a thing to behold. The boys (as well as many dads) spend weeks crafting unbelievably elaborate cars, including the most creative uses of modeling paint, chrome, and craft supplies you can imagine. It looks like a miniature Detroit auto show. Prior to the race, all the cars are displayed on a table and each scout gets to vote for the coolest car. At the end of the race, the winner is announced, just after the fastest car.
And since building an elaborate “cool” car often comes at the expense of the best aerodynamics, usually the scout has to decide up front if he’s designing a car for speed or for looks.
With sixty scouts and only two overall winning trophies, competition is steep. And not just between the scouts. Many of the dads take the competition as seriously as they do their day jobs. Some are engineers or designers and spend weeks perfecting their cars. (Uh, I mean their child’s cars, of course.) Do a quick web search and you’ll see countless articles written by and for adults defining the physics and optimal design of a Pinewood Derby car.
All that is important, because due to the weight and speed of these cars, any slight imperfection in the track or the wheels can result in a car crashing at the bottom or flying off the track. Any car suffering that fate loses all chances of winning the race and generally earns some good-natured teasing from the other boys. So to add some levity, one year Ben’s pack leader added a third trophy to the mix: Best Crash. It wasn’t a trophy anyone wanted to win, but it did take a bit of the sting out of an embarrassing defeat.
A new strategy
Well, Ben’s dad is neither an engineer nor an artist. As a result, his chances of winning either of the two main trophies have always been pretty slim. So after his first year of not taking home either of them, he decided on a different strategy. Instead of going for fastest car or coolest car, he decided to aim for the trophy nobody else wanted: Best Crash!
His plan was to design a car guaranteed to crash in the most spectacular manner possible. It was genius. After many designs, here’s what we came up with. We built an average-looking race car. Then we cut it all the way through into three roughly equal sections: a front, middle, and back end of the car. We attached the segments with weak magnets, just strong enough to hold the car together if it wasn’t bothered much. Then we put an antenna sticking straight up out of the middle section just tall enough that it wouldn’t fit under the metal frame that held the checkered flag over the finish line. Every time his car crossed the finish line, the antenna ran into the frame with a loud clang. That sent all three segments of the car flying in different directions, some even into the cheering crowd.
The first time his car raced, the crash took everyone by surprise. “How could a car just fly apart like that?” By the last heat, however, everyone was cheering “Crash, crash, crash, crash!”
If you find yourself frustrated in work or life trying to meet someone else’s definition of success, try redefining what success looks like, like Ben did.
And by the way, it should be no surprise who won the Best Crash trophy that year. Today it sits proudly on Ben’s shelves in his bedroom, next to a race car designed to never win a single race.
As with all these stories, I encourage you to share this with your kids. Then have a discussion about it. Here are some questions to get you started.
- What do you think about Ben’s decision to design his car for Best Crash instead of Fastest Car or Best in Show like the other Cub Scouts?
- Are there things you do that you don’t think you’ll ever be very successful at?
- How can you redefine your own definition of success in those circumstances, like Ben did?
- What’s an example of something you would you not want to define your own standard of success for?
[You can find this and over 100 other character-building stories in my book, Parenting with a Story.]
Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a Story and Parenting with a Story.
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