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Words from the Champion: Lessons I Learned from the Scripps National Spelling Bee

personal growth

Mon, October 02

Success is like an iceberg. You see the confetti and the trophy, but you don't see the other side of the iceberg, the side that's under the water.

I've never won a spelling bee...until this year. I've lost over two dozen spelling bees over four years, yet I never gave up. Many people ask me, "Why didn't I give up?" The truth is...I couldn't give up.

I loved spelling. There's nothing that excites me more than words, English, books, and linguistics. I found what I loved, and I let it drive me. Throughout my journey, I've learned valuable lessons about myself; here are some things I've learned.

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1. 90% of gamblers quit before they win

It's true. It's a joke, but to a certain extent, it's true. The best spellers keep going, no matter what.

If I gave up when I lost dozens of times, I wouldn't have won. Rejection and losing hurts. It's a fact of life, but sometimes you have to bite the bullet. The best way to deal with this is, don't worry about the results. Do it because you love it. If you truly have passion for whatever you are trying to accomplish, you won't worry about the results. There's a difference between goal-setting and revolving something around the results.

"When it rains, look for the rainbows. When it's dark, look for the stars." - Oscar Wilde

2. Never disconnect from people

No matter what you're trying to accomplish, there's no excuse not to stay in contact with friends and family. I lost so many friends because I revolved everything around spelling. I sacrificed many extracurricular activities and field trips, and people started to notice.

Sometimes you have to put yourself first, but putting yourself first all the time is just being selfish. I wish I had kept in touch with friends while preparing for the spelling bee. Your family and friends come first.

3. Don't compare yourself

It takes practice...believe me. There were over 200 competitors at the national spelling bee, and every day I was comparing myself to them. "What if I'm not as good as them," or "He/she's probably preparing more than me." The fact of life is there's always going to be someone better than you. Even if you are the best at something, someone will end up being better than you in the foreseeable future.

"To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

However, just because someone is better than you, doesn't mean you aren't worth it for your passion. 11 million people do the spelling bee every year, across the world, yet I won. That speaks volumes to me. There were probably a dozen better spellers than me, yet I won.

There are so many things that go into any competition or accomplishment. Whether it be an archery competition or an essay competition, there's a lot more involved than the actual task at hand. You have to worry about keeping your emotions in check, staying calm on stage, and not "choking" when it matters the most.

The main reason we compare ourselves to other people is that we feel that we don't have worth. That's not true! You deserve whatever it is that you're trying to accomplish, as long as you work hard. Put in the work, and you get results.

4. Hard work doesn't mean good results.

I know...I self-contradicted myself, but it has to be said. There's an element of luck in everything; whether tennis, art, or even music. Just because you practice and work hard doesn't mean you'll automatically accomplish it.

There's so much that happens behind the scenes. In a spelling bee, you can get any word from the dictionary containing half a million words. It is simply impossible to memorize every word, so there's an element of luck that goes into spelling. This is why you shouldn't give up if you lose! You may have just had a bad day, or it was tough luck.

Photo Credit: Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

5. Consistency + quality = improvement

You can accomplish whatever you want to do if you're consistent. If you want to practice fifteen hours a week, make sure you do that every week for a year. If you want to practice eight hours a week, make sure each hour is effective and helpful.

If you're trying to accomplish something that relates to intelligence (eg. spelling bees, math competitions, or writing competitions), note that your brain is just like a muscle. If you work out for a day but don't work out for another three days, not much improvement will happen.

The same goes for any athletic-related task. If you go to the gym once a week, you won't see any changes. But you'll probably see results if you go four or five times a week.

With that being said, if you go to the gym and text people half the time you're there, results will be minimized. Do something with quality, and do something with consistency.

"Consistency is key in any sport and it's no different here." - Phil Jones

6. Progress isn't linear.

For some areas in life, progress is linear, but for the majority of pursuits, it isn't. Most days for me while preparing for the spelling bee ended up in me missing more words than I did the previous day. Most spelling bees resulted in me performing worse than my last result. Progress isn't linear, and there's nothing you can do about it.

The best thing is to track your progress every day and enjoy the process. Don't get caught up in chasing fame or chasing achievement. Remember why you started on your journey in the first place.

You should feel intrinsic motivation to prepare for whatever it is you're preparing for. I never thought about winning the national spelling bee until I did; I just studied words because I liked it.

Photo Credit: Olena Bohovyk from Pexels

You got this

One thing I realized at the end of my spelling journey is that the true value that comes out of a journey isn't the result, but the journey itself. The friends I made, the memories I created, and the lessons I learned easily outweigh the result. At the end of your journey, you'll be a different person and a better version of yourself.

That's all that matters. Every day provides us with a chance to grow and learn. Seize the opportunity!

Dev Shah
20k+ pageviews

Writer since Sep, 2023 · 17 published articles

Dev Shah is a freshman at Palm Harbor University High School. He won the 2023 national spelling bee and now runs a coaching business and blog. In his free time, he loves to read, play the cello, write, and play tennis.