What the lamest science project ever taught me about putting in the extra effort

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

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Chapter 1 — The coin flip: What a cancer diagnosis taught me about life exploding into a bazillion pieces

Chapter 2 — The slip-up: What a puddle of puke taught me about asking for help

Chapter 3 — The Great Burning: What a million paper monsters taught me about things going up in smoke

Chapter 4 — The crayon candle: What the lamest science project ever taught me about putting in the extra effort

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

Chapter 6 — The “Super Something:” What blood and glue fumes taught me about vulnerability

Chapter 7 — The dare: What wearing a clay helmet taught me about bad habits

Chapter 8 — The cannonball: What Meghan in the mud taught me about letting go

Chapter 9 — The fireball: What a flaming tennis ball taught me about nurturing imagination

Chapter 10 — The frying pan: What towel-snapping taboos taught me about pushing your luck

Chapter 11 — The haybale: What a tough day in the barn taught me about having someone to watch your back

Chapter 12 — The babysitting gig: What banshee babies and buttered butts taught me about failing forward

Chapter 13 — The sledgehammer: What a construction job taught me about using the right tools

Chapter 14 — The cement truck: What a misguided act of heroism taught me about good intentions

Chapter 15 — The valet: What a parking disaster taught me about overconfidence

Chapter 16 — The growl: What a wolf in the woods taught me about knowledge and responsibility

Chapter 17 — The shortcut: What a hike through stinging nettles taught me about cutting corners

Chapter 18 — The backpack: What a giant duffel bag taught me about band-aid solutions

Chapter 19 — The big freeze: What camping in a snowstorm taught me about knowing when to quit

Chapter 20 — The snowy gauntlet: What an idiotic bet taught me about redefining success

Chapter 21 — The Christmas tree: What a holiday hunt taught me about overkill

Chapter 22 — The BB gun: What my dad getting shot in the eye taught me about owning up to our mistakes

Chapter 23 — The toboggan hill: What sledding battles taught me about approaching problems from different angles

Chapter 24 — The train: What a trip to the big city taught me about self-sabotage

Chapter 25 — The mushy cauliflower: What dinner in France taught me about the power of words

Chapter 26 — The shopping cart: What an unusual ride to the bar taught me about control

Chapter 27 — The butt clay: What a muddy gully battle taught me about karma

Chapter 28 — The president: What Bill Clinton getting in my way taught me about adaptability

Chapter 29 — The Taipei middle way: What a hostile hostel taught me about moderation

Chapter 30 — The refugee camp: What volunteering in Ghana taught me about digging deeper

Chapter 31 — The bus ride: What a long drive through the mountains taught me about patience

Chapter 32 — The barn: What a Christmas sleepover taught me about keeping your fires stoked

Chapter 33 — The list: What farts and sandwiches taught me about gratitude

Chapter 34 — The birthday: What a surprise celebration in the hospital taught me about self-care

Chapter 35 — The goodbye: What a man named Frank taught me about luck

Chapter 36 — The bloody transformation: What going from negative to positive taught me about change

Chapter 37 — The school of hard knocks: What life’s misadventures taught me about blunderful resilience