Fortune Well January 30, 2024
The National Spelling Bee is intense. Over 11 million kids take part in the spelling bee circuit across the country. Eventually, 200 spellers advance to the national stage. However, it’s not easy to qualify. First, you must win your class, school, and regional bees. You must study tens of thousands of words, learn roots, and dissect language patterns. Most importantly—you have to learn how to manage your nerves. But ultimately, it’s a great achievement to get to participate.
Enduring the demands of the spelling bee requires serious mental stamina. Not only does it take years to prepare, but the competition itself lasts an entire week. It’s easy to get overwhelmed with it all, but I coped by taking things one step at a time. When I was studying, I directed my energy towards studying. I tried my best not to get worked up by the approaching competition date in a month. When I was in the early rounds of the competition, I focused solely on that. I steered my mind away from the future and the past and just stayed in the present.
Staying focused on what was right in front of me was important. I realized that I suffered more when I got lost in my imagination and anticipation, thinking of worst-case scenarios like blanking on stage and forgetting everything. Don’t get me wrong, it’s important to prepare for worst-case scenarios, but dwelling on them will hurt you. It depletes your confidence.
Instead of thinking about the negatives, I focused on the things I could control. The main source of anxiety for me was the fear I’d get a word I didn’t know, or that I’d get a hard word when everyone else got an easy one. But those factors weren’t in my control. What I could control was my reactions. I could control my breathing and my emotions, which meant I could control my anxiety level and relax more.
And then there were all the other contestants—200 spellers competing against me. As I talked with them, they’d recount the thousands of hours they studied, and the multiple coaches their family hired. It was overwhelming. Compared to them, I felt that I hadn’t done enough to prepare. But again, I realized these were things beyond my control. So I changed my mindset. I wasn’t competing against other spellers; I was competing with them. It didn’t matter if another kid got a word I didn’t know or had prepped with three coaches. None of that affected my results, since the true enemy is the dictionary.
Instead of seeing others as “competitors,” I decided to make friends. Two days before the grand finals (which were watched by over 6 million viewers), I found myself despondent and stressed. Then, a few spellers approached me and we had a chat. We decided to go out to eat to distract ourselves from the competition. It turns out that’s exactly what I needed. A burrito and two hours with new friends helped me win a national spelling bee.
I learned that sometimes all you need to do is take a step back. As I was preparing for the spelling bee, I thought that if I stopped studying for a couple of hours, I’d ruin everything. But nothing is so important that you can’t take an hour or two to unwind. Unwinding helped me see the positives. Win or lose, I still got to stay at a resort for a week and make lifelong friends.
I performed better with the weight of “what if” off my shoulders. I simply honed in on spelling the word in front of me. I kept eye contact with the pronouncer, and I didn’t look at anyone else. Instead of thinking, “Millions of people are watching me,” I thought, “I just have to spell a word. That’s it.”
And I did that, one word at a time, 15 times in a row. Finally, after correctly spelling psammophile (derived from Greek, an organism that prefers or thrives in sandy soils or areas) I won. I was crowned the 2023 Scripps National Spelling Bee Champion.
Winning this title is more than just an accomplishment for me. It was a journey that taught me lifelong lessons. It taught me how to manage my nerves and stress. It taught me how to perform and excel in stressful situations. And it taught me how to take a step back and look at the big picture to enjoy the ride.
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