I volunteered for a local middle school’s after school program, First Lego League competition.  This is a great program were middle schoolers from across the world compete in a series of events including a research program and a robotics program.  In the research program, the kids research a problem and propose novel solutions.  In the robotics program, the kids build and program a robot to solve a series of challenges prescribed by First Lego League.  We lost.  My kids did well but not great.  Other teams simply out performed us.

After we found out that we didn’t win, I asked the kids, “so . . . . . what did we learn?”  Yes, that is a question I ask anytime someone doesn’t achieve their goals.  It is also a question I ask when someone does achieve their goals.  Basically it is a great question.  I ask it of myself more than I ask anyone else.  In fact, once this is posted, I’ll start asking myself what did I learn.  Could my title have attracted more readers?  Could my writing have inspired more shares, likes or comments?  Could I have promoted this piece better or harder or more effectively?

These questions should be answered honestly and without blame.  Simple matter of fact answers that allow us to learn and grow.  Simple matter of fact answers that allow to do better next time.  This is where I got into trouble with the kids.  The kids answered, “To always try your best.”  While on the surface that is a good answer, kids have learned that if they say “try your best” adults will typically move along.  Unfortunately for them, I’m not your typical adult.  “So,” I asked, “did you try your best?”  “Yes!”

“Actually, you didn’t.”  The looks on their faces were priceless.  It is not a comment they hear in our participation trophy culture.  I listed a few simple matter of fact points to highlight my claim.  “You met once a week for about 90 minutes.  We know that the other middle school’s team met four times a week for three hours.  You were tasked with writing your script for your presentation as homework.  You didn’t do it.  Instead, you showed up and practiced it for the first time on the morning of the competition.  I’m not assigning blame.  I’m showing that the effort that WE (and I really stressed “we”) put in didn’t add up to a win.”  Perhaps I went on a bit more.  Yeah, ok I went on a lot more and that is something I’m asking myself what I learned.  That is a separate post.

That was when they pushed back.  “Don’t you want us to feel proud?”  I’m not sure how to even describe their tone.  It was whiny and combative at the same time.  I guess that is how to describe it.  My answer?  “No.  If you had put in the effort and lost, I would say feel proud.  If you want to feel proud for putting in 1/8th the work of the other school and doing ok but not winning, go ahead.  It matters what your goal is.  Did you do this to just have a little fun with a little effort?  If so, we had fun but fun is not pride.  If you wanted to win, the fact is the effort you put in was insufficient.  You had the ability to win (they really are a bright group of kids) but you chose to not put the required effort to win.”

They didn’t like it.  I’m not sure that understood it but it needed to be said.  I know they hated it but I hope it will help them make better decisions about putting in effort in the future.  Too many times we strive for mediocre.  Aiming for mediocre is a sure way to never be great.

I want to say that again:  Aiming for mediocre is a sure way to never be great.

Please share with us.  Where have you aimed for mediocre?  Why?  What will make you strive for greatness next time?  (And of course)  What did you learn?