Spelling bees and the fear of trying.


I was called to the principal’s office one afternoon in 7th grade.

Not remembering any wrongdoing, I wondered why.

My interest was elevated by the identities of those called along with me; not my “cool” sports-and-mischief friends but my nerdy, good-grades-getting friends.

Turns out, we had been called for an impromptu spelloff, a private showdown among the school’s linguistic elite.

If you’ve ever been or can empathize with an insecure, prepubescent, wannabe jock, you understand how embarrassing this was.

Word after word we circled the table. Letter after letter I pieced words together until my last word was the last word remaining and I was declared the victor.

This pleased me—the triumph of victory providing relief from my embarrassment— but the pleasure was short lived.

To my horror, I discovered I had earned the opportunity to represent our school at the regional spelling bee.

Capital F U C K. Why did I spell the words right? I should have known something was amiss.

I pleaded with my parents to ditch the event. I devised an exhaustive list of scenarios that could prevent my attendance.

But I had no skill for lying. Still don’t. And I soon found myself in the passenger seat of my mother’s Honda Odyssey, pulling into the parking lot of a stodgy elementary school, the venue of the bee.

Entering the building, I was overcome with self-loathing. The girls at the registration table were cute, too — definitely not the spelling types. I felt naked, exposed for the nerd I was.

Drowning in a current of insecurity-fueled melodrama, I spluttered through the night. I spelled some words right and then I spelled one wrong. I forget the exact word. I know it had two “L”s in it and I missed one of them.

I finished third and it was finally over. Back in the van and back to my life, never to spell competitively again.

The events detailed above had evacuated my memory until, recently, I saw the Scripps National Spelling Bee playing on the gym TV.

Maybe I would have liked spelling better if “dabbing” existed back in my day.

It made me wonder, why was the spelling bee so traumatic for me? It was just one thing, one night. It gave me the chance to make my parents and my teachers proud.

Instead, they had to endure my contempt, as if being good at spelling was a disgrace.

Looking back, I wish I’d shown gratitude for the opportunity to compete.

I wish I’d practiced. I wish I’d focused.

I wish I’d won.

My 11 year old self felt with intensity that spelling was lame. It was beneath me. I was too cool to spell.

In hindsight, spelling isn’t lame. It never was.

I was the lame one.

At that time in my life, the story I was telling myself was of a cool kid, a sports player — not some nerd.

This story was so fragile I was worried an innocuous spelling excursion would rewrite my life’s narrative.

I was so unsure of who I was, I could fixate only on who I wasn’t.

If I could go back, I’d tell myself, “You are a person who is grateful for every opportunity. You’re a person who wants to make his parents proud. You’re a person who faces challenges with focus and enthusiasm.”

If sports-me wasn’t so scared of being usurped by spelling-me, he would have realized that the bee was another game to win. He would have reminded me that the only true failure is failing to try.

He would have felt future-me gazing back in time, feeling lame about that time I half-assed the spelling bee I thought was so lame.

And the moral of this story: “If you think it’s lame, you’re lame.”

Of course the title is self-referential but I hope your mind has strayed to recall a similar experience of your own.

Why do we do this to ourselves? Why, when a situation forces us from our identity zones, do we feel scared? Why, when an opinion differs radically from our own, do we feel angry?

It’s hard to live and let live.

At its centre, the claim that something is lame is a misdirected projection of identity. We protect what we are by condemning what we aren’t.

There’s a saying Gary Vee recites often:

“There are two ways to build the biggest building in town: 1. Build the biggest building in town. 2. Tear down all the other buildings around you.”

When you’re a lamesayer, you’re using your energy to tear down the buildings around you.

Leave them alone. Focus on building your own.

The world is a bigger, brighter place when you give things the chance to interest you, even when they didn’t before. Your narrative is richer and more complete when you give your full enthusiasm to the spelling bees in your life, even if they emerge as a plot twist.

It’s not always simple. The world doesn’t bend to our preference. Much of it will look bad, smell bad, taste bad, feel bad, sound bad (yeup, that’s all five senses, listed em all), but unless we try it, we won’t know.

And if we don’t try it, or we try it and we don’t like it, it’s not our job to tear it down. Some buildings are meant to stand tall, even if we never step inside them.