Last June, I managed to find myself in a position going to Atlanta, Georgia competing in the National History Bee. Now this was a big deal for me because I had never left my hometown of Portland, Oregon more than once a year. I even got to miss two days of school. I had to study for about three months in order to have a decent chance of doing well.
Now as my mother and I got on the “metal eagle” as Cambodian immigrants called it when they were fleeing Pol Pot (history reference right there). The Delta Airlines aircraft was awaiting it’s passengers before taking off in it’s usual lofty manner. As the plane began its ascent I contemplated my decision to go to Atlanta. Would I come out looking like a failure? Would I confuse something simple like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and say Lincoln crossed the Delaware? Would I not even be able to continue in my later rounds? All these question nagged at me like a rope pulling the 2593.4 miles from my hometown.
When we pulled into the Atlanta airport late at night after a typical and uneventful flight, my mother turned to me and said, “We’re here Ethan, how are you feeling?”
“Fine?” I squeaked.
We checked into our hotel at 9:00 p.m. and promptly went to sleep.
I awakened the next morning feeling anticipatory and nervous. My amygdala and prefrontal cortex were pumping cortisol and adrenaline, and dopamine respectively at the same time promoting an extremely elevated heart rate. My mother and I went to the welcoming ceremony which explained the rules, outlined the multi-round format, and encouraged us to just have fun and try our hardest. I didn’t really grant much thought to the last part and I kept thinking about the what-ifs.
“What if I monumentally screw up and everyone laughs at me?”
“What if I don’t get a single question right?”
“What if even the moderators have trouble being polite?”
As I walked to my first round my amygdala was supplying more cortisol and adrenaline than my prefrontal cortex was providing endorphins and dopamine causing a wide felt sensation most commonly known as anxiety.
I should probably tell you the point system now. Every question you get right is worth one point, but, if you get eight points then you get excused from the round and get bonuses depending on how early you get out. My first round went better than my abysmal standards. I got two points and avoided making a fool out of myself. I got one question right about Robert Fulton and another about Nebraska.
I had some free time in the afternoon to tour Atlanta. In behalf of the fact that our accommodations were near Centennial Park (where the city’s greatest attractions lie), my mother and I were able to tour some of the interesting parts of Atlanta. Ensuing an unnoteworthy evening we went to bed. The next day my attitude changed. My prefrontal cortex was releasing minutely more hormones than my amygdala. I was thinking about getting more than two points. However I was still kind of scared. I went through the second day having a bit more self-esteem, but still not much. I even got three points. I had a great lunch and afternoon. As we were ingesting our lunch, my mother confronted me. “It seems like you aren’t having a great time Ethan. Is that true?”
“No, why would you think that?” I squealed.
“Okay Ethan, I’m calling your bluff here. You aren’t having a good time are you?”
“Well yeah, I have been feeling very anxious.”
“Just try your best and have fun you’ll do okay.”
I resolved to do that exact thing and do my best. The next day which would also be my last day in Atlanta. I did my best and had fun and ended up getting a whopping eight points which vaulted me to the top 27% of the entire competition.
I learned a very important lesson that day. As long as my focus is to work hard and have fun, everything will turn out alright in the end. This is a priceless lesson I will carry with me for all of my days.