Competition: The Meaning
Well, the robot is in the bag. This week, hundreds of hungry students and mentors will travel long distances to an event. Eyes full of hope, robots ready to go, each one of us young and old is heading for an experience that will shape them in no small part. I am here to remind you of one golden rule that each of you should take to heart over the next couple of months. I am not talking about gracious professionalism, though its practice should be a cornerstone of each team in this competition. I am talking about winning and losing…and not in the way you may think.
The Golden Rule: Success is not measured in wins and losses.
We all want to win. Why else would we put so much effort into strategy, design, and manufacturing of these beasts? I will declare that there is nothing wrong with winning. Winning is amazing, its a validation of that hard work you have put in and a cause for one heck of a celebration. Unfortunately, the majority of us will not win. A good chunk of us will not even come close. Finding merit in failure might be the most important lesson that I have learned in twenty years of FIRST. As a young student and mentor, dealing with the disappointment of not reaching our competition goal was sometimes crushing. I am a competitive person by nature, I want to win, I ALWAYS want to win. It is a true fact that a good majority of those in the crowds at these competition feel the exact way. “A jock trapped in a nerd’s body”, is what I used to call myself, and getting out those competitive juices was important for me and will be for many for as long as we play this game. The question is, how does that change? Well, for some people, it doesn’t. I am not knocking the ethics of those who continue to be passionate about winning, it is just the path that they take to get to the goal that they are trying to reach. Many of those people have built successful programs with trophy cases as large as a jumbo SUV. Do they get it? Ask their students. You will find that on the so called “power teams”, the kids are just as passionate and knowledgeable as any other team. Still, the majority of us are just not every year contenders. Heartache is just as much of a part of FIRST as the nuts and bolts that keep the robots together. For many of us, the thirst for winning becomes a quest for something else…enlightenment.
Some call it cliche. In speech after speech, we are all told that “Everyone is a winner!”. I have heard the statement so many times that I have begun to outright reject it just based on the premise that I am sick of hearing it. How can we all be winners when you put weeks of hard labor into something only to have it break at an inopportune moment, or just not be good enough to beat the teams that just seem to always have the game figured out? The answer, my friends, is that failure is a good thing. Let me repeat that…failure, IS a good thing. Failure allows us to learn the lessons we need to be stronger human beings. In FIRST, each failure gives you an answer…a way out of sorts. As FIRST team members, we should never be afraid to fail. We should accept it when it happens, and use it to build a stronger robot, a stronger plan, or a stronger bond. Failure is painful, but it is a common bond that brings so many of us together to learn to embrace strength. Our goal is to inspire or be inspired. In science and technology, failure is essential if you plan on traversing the path to perfection. I can think of no better way to inspire true meaning of what it is to be in the field of science and technology, than to conquer and own the one thing we all fear the most.
Learning from others
One of the most wonderful things about the FIRST community is that everyone is so ready to talk. All you have to do is walk around the pit to a random team, ask them a question, and watch their eyes light up when they get to tell you about a key device that makes them proud. A FIRST competition is a wealth of amazing stories just waiting to be heard, and each one of those stories can teach you a lesson that can make you a better team, especially when you feel like your team has hit a dead end. While in this program, I have walked the pits, introduced myself to hundreds of teams, talked to thousands of people, and benefitted from each one. From the top tier teams down to the ones who are just looking for that moral victory, they are all carrying some wealth of knowledge just waiting to be utilized by some inquiring soul . We have always encouraged our students to walk around and learn the secrets of what makes a team special. How does a team like Simbotics make such a dominating robot each year? Go and ask them, I have yet to hear of them turning anyone away. Do you see a design that you wanted to try, but your team decided to go a different direction? Go talk to that team, learn what it was that made it work, or not work. Success is knowledge. Some of the most impactful competitions you can go to may have nothing to do about what you have learned on the field
Lets say you are a student in this program, next time you are at the competition, I want you to look around you. Now, think about this simple idea: There is a good chance that somewhere in the group of people surrounding you is the best friend you will ever have…and you haven’t even met him/her yet. For those of us who have been around for long enough, we know what this means. Being a part of FIRST means that you are part of a family, if you let it happen. There are bonds being built at every event you go to. Personally, some of the most amazing people I have had the honor of spending time with, I met at a FIRST competition. In many cases, FIRST becomes a common interest shared between to people at college, or mentors between teams, or just students in general. Then, there is a special bond between you and your team. Students learn from their mentors, and become inspired as they take in their enthusiasm about an aspect of the program and apply it to their lives. I have always reconnected with the mentors who have made me what I am today. Furthermore, even when I moved on from being a student, I gained mentors who I also emulate in many ways. We all learn from each other as team members. We spend so much time together and expend so much emotion together that being a teammate takes on a whole new meaning. We all walk away from competitions sharing stories that have special places in our hearts, some humorous, some joyful, some sad, some just downright amazing. In the end, no medal, no trophy, no banner can replace that.
So, off we go. Robots will speed across the field. Balls will launch from catapults through a goal. Scores will go up on a board and some will cheer, or some will not. Remember while you are there, however, to take it all in. Look around you. See this competition for what it really is. Yes, they have been right all along…we are all, in fact, winners.