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

As the judges approached my entry to the grade 6 science fair, I wondered if the bold 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 cheap tri-fold display board 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.

OK, 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. 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 while simultaneously trying not to pee themselves from the sheer terror of being in a gymnasium filled with parents and other bored relatives.

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 16-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 thought the ending was 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 Obi-Wan and Darth Vader’s fight scene. It just didn’t make sense.

And then I turned the page.

My heart sank to the floor. The poem continued for another 16 lines. And while the narrative arc certainly made much 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 rewards of hard work

Satisfactory is hardly satisfying. Yes, my science project met the requirements needed 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 elementary school — this one on constellations. For that assignment, I buried my nose in piles of books, pored over astrological maps and devoted weeks to learning about the stars in the sky. Decades later, I can still pick out a slew of constellations and can tell you the mythology behind them.

When I lived in Taiwan, I met a fellow ESL teacher who was learning Chinese like a boss. I remember someone asking him what his secret was. His response? “I spend two hours a night studying and practising.”

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

The results are obvious. 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. So dig deep. Take the time to give that screw one extra twist, push through the pain in your legs on your next run, rehearse that presentation a few more times before going to bed.

Because when it comes to external results and internal satisfaction, the secret is simple: you get what you put in.

Josh Martin
Josh Martin is the creative force behind Badge of Awesome. He is the author of "Misadventure Musings: Lessons learned from life's awesome and absurd moments" and "The Overcoming Obstacles Handbook."

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