When I was in law school, some of my favorite classes where titled “Law and _____.” The blank was filled with things like “Economics” or “Religion” or “Psychology” or “Order.” The idea of taking two different concepts and seeing how they affected each other was absolutely fascinating to me. While each idea stood on its own, putting “Law” in front of the other concept made you take a different look at it, and in the end helped you better understand them both. In a time when it seems that we are all pushed into “specializing” in our professional lives, sometimes we need to step back and challenge ourselves to bring in something unusual to our routines to break our tunnel vision, and in the end, make ourselves better.

Over the past weekend, I saw something that reminded me of this idea. My youngest daughter (pictured above, top row, second from the left) competed in an Odyssey of the Mind competition and reminded me of how taking two or more unrelated ideas and making them work together, and create something that is better than its individual parts.

The Odyssey of the Mind competition was special because it asked students to do two very different things:

  1. Perform a task involving something you’ve engineered (my daughter’s task was to create a vehicle that someone could ride back and forth across a gym floor.)
  2. Tell a story and make the vehicle change emotions as you are telling the story (the vehicle had to go from happy to sad and then from envious to in love.)
Here’s the part of the description I love:

The emphases will be on the technical risk-taking and creativity of the vehicle’s engineering for travel and change of emotional appearance.

The kids had to come up with all the ideas on their own (I made the mistake of attempting to explain how a broken piece of the vehicle could be fixed, and before I could say anything the kids all started “shushing” me and telling me not to say anything because they could be disqualified… I took my cue and left the room at that point.) The process they took was pretty ingenious… they used a clear plastic dung beetle head and rigged up a mouth on a stick that they could manipulate to make it smile or frown. Same with the eyes to go from happy to sad. My favorite was when they threw in a green glow stick to represent being envious. All of this while telling a story of how a dung beetle fell in love with a can of RAID spray that was wearing an Elvis wig (I’m still confused about the Elvis reference… but, I’m perfectly fine with the love story.) Long story short… they won their division and get to travel to the State Competition, which is only about 5 miles away this year.

The thing that struck me most, however, wasn’t the actual eight minutes of competition that the students performed. What struck me was the excitement in the hallway as all of the different groups were preparing for the competition. The Principal of the school made a great comment to us as she looked up and down the hallway. “This is how school should be conducted everyday.” Meaning that instead of the traditional method of drilling for state sanctioned standardized testing, the kids should be challenged to think for themselves and apply what they are learning in ways beyond traditional test taking skills.

Here’s the reaction from the students when they heard they won their division (suggestion: turn your speakers down, cause it gets loud!!)

Now, you may think that only the winners screamed this loud. Not true. The schools that placed sixth in the competition screamed just as loud… actually I think the school that sat right behind me actually screamed a bit louder.

The whole thing just reminds me of how I get inspired when I bring in non-traditional concepts into my daily routine in a law firm. Applying IT concepts in a library project, or suggesting to others how a project they are working on would be better by adding something completely outside their normal ideas. Too often we get bogged down in hashing out the same old ideas and talking to others that think exactly as we do. From time to time get out of the “group think” and take a chance to see if you can find someone that can suggest throwing in a proverbial green glow stick into your project. You may not find yourself screaming down the aisle to accept your award, but you may find yourself feeling something that you haven’t felt in your profession in a while… a sense of excitement.