5 Career Lessons I Learned From Winning the National Spelling Bee
The most valuable tips from a previous year's winner.
This content originally appeared on Money.
I have an unusual claim to fame, one I share with fewer than 100 people in the world: I’m a National Spelling Bee champion.
In 2006, I outlasted 274 spelling champions from around the world, rattling off “Ursprache” (a word of German origin that means “a parent language”) in the 20th round to clinch the big trophy, which also came with over $40,000 in cash and prizes. The weeks and months that followed, even a decade later, still seem like a whirlwind. I appeared on “The Today Show” and “Good Morning America,” competed in a mock spelling bee on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” with Jimmy and his sidekick Guillermo, and was invited to the White House to meet President and Mrs. Bush (and their friendly pups, Barney and Miss Beazley).
However, for me, my win isn’t the most vivid memory from my time competing in the spelling bee. Instead, I look back on the hours and years of drilling obscure vocabulary words, and the talented, hard-working friends I met across my years of competition. Most importantly, though, the lessons I learned as an adolescent spelling bee competitor—like persistence and grace under pressure—have stayed with me in the 10 years since I won.
Those skills have also proven indispensable as I’ve embarked on a career in journalism. Here are a few of the most valuable workplace tips I gleaned from my orthographical endeavors:
You won’t achieve your long-term goals immediately: That’s why they’re long-term in the first place. I competed, and fell short, in the National Spelling Bee four times before I finally won on my fifth try, as an eighth-grader in my final year of eligibility. While studying word lists with tens of thousands of words, I quickly realized I wasn’t going to memorize the whole list in one day. Instead, I tackled my goals by parsing them into smaller parts: Learn 50 new words in a day, for instance, or master all the words I had misspelled in practice over the past week. That way, major projects didn’t seem so intimidating. Similarly, if you put in the necessary work every day at your job, you’re setting yourself up to be where you want in your career years down the line.
In the spelling bee, it was easy to get bogged down by the mindset that your primary goal was to outlast the other spellers on stage. While that’s true in theory, I would have missed on getting to know some amazing, smart people if I’d viewed the other spellers as simply competition. My fellow spellers were incredibly bright kids who not only proved to be great friends, but also valuable study resources. We stayed in touch across the years, swapping word lists and running practice bees online, and we often said we were competing against the dictionary, not one another. Likewise, at work, I also think it’s more productive to view your coworkers as assets that can enrich your work and your company, rather than your competition for a promotion.
In my final year of eligibility, knowing it was my last chance to take home the title, I didn’t want to leave any stone unturned. So I decided to go through the entirety of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary and make a list of every word I came across that I didn’t know how to spell. While that was undeniably a monumental task, I limited my studying to an hour or two per day and eventually made it through the tome in about six months. I tried to make a point of never letting the Bee take over my life, because I also wanted to make time for my other hobbies, like playing on the soccer team and sailing competitively during the summer. It wasn’t always easy to balance my competing priorities, but it taught me how to identify what was most important and budget my time. That’s also proven to be an invaluable skill in the workforce.
That advice is definitely easier said than done, but keeping calm can definitely provide you with some much-needed perspective in the Bee—and on the job. When spellers were extremely nervous or even overly confident, it often led to their elimination due to careless mistakes on words they knew how to spell. Similarly, it helps at work to take a deep breath and not immediately freak out over tough situations. You’ll likely benefit from your reputation as an employee who can keep her cool in pressurized situations on the job.
I often cite chance as one of the most important factors in my National Spelling Bee win. There are about a dozen kids, if not more, in the national competition who have a realistic shot at coming away with the title. Who ultimately wins, however, is more or less determined by who receives the words they know how to spell. For instance, in the 2006 finals, I was lucky that I wasn’t asked to spell "icteritious" or "heiligenschein," which were misspelled by the third- and fourth-place finishers, respectively—and that I also would have tripped up on. Instead, I got words I knew how to spell or was able to guess, and breezed to my title with relative ease. That’s why I could never take my results at the National Spelling Bee too seriously: I was lucky just to be there, and doing well in the competition was merely an added bonus. Similarly, in your career, it’s important to remember that, despite your best efforts, you probably won’t knock every project out of the park—and to keep a positive attitude nonetheless.