One In A Million

I once again had the privilege of attending the 2012 Scripps National Spelling Bee held the last week of May near Washington DC. 278 kids, from 6 to 14 years old, traveled to this championship venue to tackle words such as quinquennalia and mumpsimus. (Good luck even pronouncing them and no, they are not in the spell check library!) It is an absolutely wonderful competition.

Thought I would share some observations and lessons learned about some things you may not know.

  • First, if you think that these competitors are just a bunch nerdy kids who do nothing but spell, you would be incorrect. They are regular kids who have lots of friends, play sports and music, deal with school, have genuine senses of humor, and like to have fun.
  • They work extraordinary hard at becoming their best. The winner this year said she prepared around 50 hours per week. That is more than a full time job. My guess is there are few Olympic athletes competing this year in London, who keep up that kind of training regimen.
  • Like any endeavor where one cares deeply and works hard, heartbreak is part of the territory. I can only imagine what it would feel like, after months or even years of preparing, to have your hopes dashed by one stinking, lousy letter.
  • As astonishing as it may sound, many of the finalist will comment that they know almost all of the words in the competition, their own and those answered by others. Yet, knowing an almost unpronounceable, unbelievably challenging word, and being able to spell it under pressure are two very different things.
  • They frequently “high-five” the other successful spellers. Although they each want to win, they celebrate and encourage their fellow competitors.

As one who is a constant student of leadership, I marvel at the many rich lessons of leadership which these kids demonstrate for us. I encourage you to reflect on what you can learn from them.

There are only 2 more comments I would like to make, both of which are enormous in importance and too easily taken for granted.

First, there may not be a program on the planet that matches the Bee in integrity. And there is a simple reason. Everyone involved with it – the staff, judges, pronouncers, researchers, volunteers – everyone loves the kids and what the Bee does for these kids. A single issue in integrity, no matter how small, could ultimately have an impact on one or more of the kids, and that is just unacceptable. The Bee consists of thousands of moving parts, any of which could tarnish or even ruin the program. You cannot imagine how much effort is put in, by everyone, to ensure that integrity is never compromised anywhere in the system. This reminds us all that caring is very hard work.

My final observation is that every speller invited to participate in the National Spelling Bee is already a winner, regardless of the final standings. When I think about our national population of over 300 million people, it dawns on me that for each of the 278 spellers invited to compete at this event, there are over 1 million people in the country who are not invited. They just could not make the cut. Therefore, each one of these kids is truly and legitimately one in a million. And that is indeed something worth “spellabrating.”

My hearty congratulations to all the kids and their families. It has been a pleasure being a part of this special moment in your lives. All the best.


  1. Matt Curry says:

    I believe they have shown these on ESPN in the past. I too was impressed by the spirit of ‘oneness’ the competitors showed toward each other. I found myself watching these ‘kids’ spell words I hadn’t even heard. Great connection- they truly are one in a million!

    • Steve Coats says:

      Thanks Matt. It was again televised on ESPN and that just adds to the pressure – photographers and reporters walking around on stage, directors giving directions, and of the delays from the good old commercial time out. But they take it in stride. Hopefully we can all learn to celebrate the greatness of those around us.

Share Your Thoughts