Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Pinewood derby

Life doesn't come in a kit

If I remember correctly, they came in kits, and you had to register long before the race so that your materials would come in the mail on time. In the delivery box were four wheels, four hubcaps, two axels, and a block of wood, and as a boy scout, your duty was to engineer a derby car using only those materials. I'll be the first to admit I was never the best boy scout, but the annual pinewood derby races were the one area I really shined.

We had the perfect design, my dad and I. Most of the time we would even get two kits. The first one would be a trial model that we could try out crazy new ideas on: spoiler, forked wedge, extremely narrow wheelbase, extremely wide wheelbase, inverted wedge, etc. Then we would dispose of the terrible ideas (usually his), and take what worked well (typically mine), and incorporate the best format into the final design. *Note: the spoiler thing never works.

We were allowed to use basic tools like drills, saws, wood chisels, and knives to shape the simple wood block, but it was the paint job that really made our cars into objects both feared and revered by other scouts and scout dads alike. Often we would devise a name for the car - something like "The Flame" or "Blazing Rocket," you know, something really terrifying that I could paint on the side in red letters.

As a kid who grew up loving the names of exploding fireworks, I'm beginning to think naming them was my favorite part. I would even go through the trouble of pulling out a bunch of blank printer paper to doodle on so I could get the letter style I wanted. My hang-up in designs, now that I think about it, was that we never had the colors of paints like I had the colors of crayons... parents take note...

At the races we always did well. Sure, there were some years that "The Crusher" or "Zoomer" didn't win first, but I blame that on the lame names. More often than not we were in the finals, and what got us there was our constant refinement to the car design. Every year we would try to capitalize on what we had learned from the year before. Sometimes that worked, and other times it left us with abominations like "Spider King"…don't ask. 

It's been years since I thought back on those little wood cars and all the fun my dad and I had making sawdust in the basement. In fact, what brought me back to it wasn't an old photograph of me in a scout uniform holding a boxcar, or finding a trophy that I never won on a dusty trophy shelf (which does exist, though it's mostly just dust), it was a much more adult issue.

You see, in the western mode of thinking, I'm always trying to find ways in which to improve my situation. "How can I make more money? How can I travel abroad, and when, and where? Where do I want to live? How can I do meaningful things with my life? Why does nobody else seem to be worried about this stuff?" It wasn't until the last question that I found some guidance, though, because when I ask myself that, things become clear.

Everyone is asking these questions. Everyone around you wants to know the answers, find the answers, be handed the answers to questions like these. Maybe they're not the exact same ones for you as they are for me, but I bet they're pretty close.

And you know what? Since I'm such a nice guy, and I want to share with you stories that have some intrinsic value, I'm going to share my answer. Like the last line of instructions on a social studies essay quiz regarding your opinion of something like, say, the last presidential debate: there is no wrong answer.

My dad and I used to buy two pinewood derby kits because we knew one of them would end up being scrap. Each year we tried new things with one of them. We tried new designs to make the car more competitive, more efficient, more successful. As it turned out, more often than not, the crazy new design failed miserably. Sure, we had a lot of fun experimenting and testing our physics hypotheses, but that route was a tough one to success, and more often than not it failed. In fact, we went with the other car, the tried and true design, nine times out of ten.

That leaves us one time - one time out of ten that the new car design worked. And do you know what happened when it worked? Well, it became the new standard. The superior new concept that we took a chance on paid off in a big way, and soon everyone else wanted to copy it.

All it takes is one - just that one, single success story out of so many trials and errors and failures and falls is enough to keep us going; keep us pushing the limits. A game changer, that's what success means. If we believe there is a better way and work hard for it, we can change the game we're playing. Because if we come up with a new way, a more efficient and thoughtful way, making better use of limited materials, we get to change the rules. That, my friends, is success.

Our lives are not pinewood derby races, true, but do you know what else they are not? They are not decided in an instruction manual insert. That was the one piece of the kit my dad and I always threw away upon opening the box. If you want to follow the instruction manual to the letter be my guest, just don't expect any results above mediocre.

In life we don't always have two kits to use, in fact we never do (unless you're into the reincarnation thing). The kit we have to build a life out of right now is the one shot we're going to get. The majority of the time we might be cautious, chipping away at our block of wood carefully and thoughtfully. However, from time to time something is going to crack, and we're going to chip off more than we had intended. At that point, we learn to incorporate that slip of the hand into our design, or we suffer it as a blemish forever. Sometimes, it's the game that changes on us; are you prepared for that?

Let me say this one more time: Despite all the failures, follies, and shortcomings, one success changes everything. Isn't that worth taking a shot at?

"Things never happen the same way twice."
- C.S. Lewis

See you out there,
A woodsman in training.

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