When it came to tasks like making paper monsters, my work ethic was unparalleled. I could crank out a dozen demons in an hour — even if the marker fumes left me woozy and wondering if the monsters were starting to talk to me. 

Unfortunately, that gung-ho effort didn’t always manifest at school. Consider my entry in the grade 6 science fair.

As the judges approached my tri-fold display board, I wondered if the bold — and crookedly glued — title of “WAX” piqued their curiosity. Was this hard-working student studying how bees convert sugar into wax for their honeycombs? Or perhaps the physiological function earwax plays in preventing infections? Whatever their expectations, they were surely disappointed when they got close enough to read the project’s opening line:

Purpose: To see if you can make a candle out of a crayon.

The exhibit went on to walk the judges through the complexities of the wildly underwhelming experiment. A Post-it Note probably would have sufficed. Here’s the project in a nutshell:

Hey, do you think we can make a candle out of a crayon?

Yeah, probably.

Okay, let’s cut a groove along the crayon and stick in a bit of string for a wick.

Got it. Now what?

Light it on fire.

Sure thing.

Did it work?

Not really.

… Neat.

Shockingly, no one from the Nobel Prize committee came knocking on my door.

In retrospect, the real experiment I conducted was determining the minimum amount of effort required for a passing grade. And in that regard, it was a roaring success, with WAX just squeaking past the “good enough” threshold.

My mastery of mediocrity extended beyond lacklustre contributions to the scientific community. Poetry competitions were another annual tradition at my elementary school. The events challenged students to recite memorized rhymes without peeing themselves from the sheer terror of being in a gymnasium filled with parents, bored relatives and that creepy old guy who always seemed to show up.

One year — to reduce the risk of whizzing my pants at school again — I scoured the library for the shortest allowable poem I could find. The content of the piece was largely irrelevant. I simply needed something that met the minimum sixteen-line requirement. Thumbing through a few books, I soon found one that fit the bill and got to work memorizing the brief ballad. 

But as the day of the recital drew closer, I started to pay more attention to what I was rehearsing. Indeed, the more I read it, the more I found the ending to be rather … abrupt. I can’t remember what the actual poem was about, but it would be like watching Star Wars and having the credits roll in the middle of the fight scene between Obi-Wan and Darth Vader. It just didn’t make sense.

And then I turned the page.

My heart sank to the floor. The poem continued for another sixteen lines. And while the narrative arc certainly made more sense, I now only had half the poem memorized, with the recital just around the corner.

I had two options. One: alert my teacher of my discovery and work my butt off to memorize the rest of the poem. Or two: pretend I hadn’t seen the second page, get on stage, and deliver a bizarre, half-baked poem with a cliff-hanger ending.

Considering my science project, you can probably guess which route I chose …

The smattering of applause I got was generous to say the least. 

Those school contests taught me that satisfactory is hardly satisfying. Yes, my science project ticked enough boxes for a passing grade. Ditto for my poetry recital. But what did I really get out of that work?

By contrast, I look back at another science project I did in grade school — this one on constellations. For that assignment, I buried my nose in piles of books, pored over astronomy maps and devoted weeks to learning about the stars in the sky. Decades later, I can still pick out a slew of constellations and tell you about the mythology behind them.

It comes down to the amount of work you’re willing to put into something. The difference between good and great often isn’t a mind-blowing idea, raw talent, fancy gear or being lucky. It’s simply the effort behind it.

Now, that comes with a huge caveat. Racism, inequality, poverty and other systemic barriers can mean someone never gets ahead no matter how hard he or she works. 

But for me, I’ve seen the difference it makes when I step up my game. The more effort I put in on a blog post, the more visits I get to my website that week. The more training I put in, the better I perform in a trail race. The more time I spend gathering firewood, the bigger the bonfire on the beach.

Crossing off an item on my to-do list is a great feeling. Crossing off an item that I know I’ve done well is even more satisfying. Sure, there are times when I only have time or energy to give a task a lick and a promise. But I try not to let the bare minimum become my default setting.

For example, as I embarked on my journey with leukemia, I knew half measures weren’t going to cut it. Success depended on me working as hard as possible. 

That meant doing my research. Never missing an appointment. Pushing past the nausea to eat so I kept my strength up. Dragging my butt out of bed to do my exercises when all I wanted to do was sleep. 

The science fair and poetry recital showed me that you get what you put in. And when my life was on the line, I was ready to do whatever was necessary to beat this thing.

Next: Chapter 5 — The Christmas concert: What starring as a tree taught me about finding my voice