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Teaching your Kids: Define Success Your Way

When my son Ben was in the Cub Scouts, one of his favorite activities was the Pinewood Derby. Now, if you're not familiar with it, here's how that works. Before the derby, 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 several design specifications, including a maximum weight and the width of the wheels.

Then on derby day, race officials put each car at the top of an inclined track about forty-five feet long. When they 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.

Well, 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. A smaller trophy is awarded for the fastest car in each scouting age bracket. Best in Show is the official name for what the boys generally refer to as the "coolest car."

And if you've never seen a Pinewood Derby race, it is a thing to behold. The boys (as well as many parents) 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.

And since building an elaborate "cool" car often comes at the expense of the best aerodynamics. Usually, the scout has to decide upfront if he's designing a car for speed or for looks.

So 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.) And a quick web search will show countless professional articles defining the physics and optimal design of a Pinewood Derby car.

Well, I'm not an engineer or an artist. As a result, Ben's chances of winning either trophy have always been pretty low. So after his first year of not taking home either of the two major trophies, he decided on a different strategy, and here's why.

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. And any car that crashes 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 hoped to earn, but it did take away a bit of the sting out of defeat.

So for Ben's second year in the derby, instead of going for the fastest car or coolest car, he decided to aim for a 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 slammed 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, everyone was cheering, "Crash, crash, crash, crash!"

It's 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.

So, a good time to share this story with your kid is when you're setting goals or determining what success looks like in anything they've decided to take part in. Here are some questions to get you started on that discussion.

  1. 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?

  2. Are there things you do that you don't think you'll ever be very successful at?

  3. How can you redefine your own definition of success in those circumstances, like Ben did?

  4. What are some things you would not want to define your own standard of success for?

Okay, in the next lesson, we'll talk about when you might want to let go of a goal you'd set for yourself and why.

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Written by

Paul Andrew Smith