I recently watched a TED Talk, featuring a young teen named Ashton Cofer. He and a team of peers decided to take on a significantly large and yet unsolved problem in America: Styrofoam waste.
From packing peanuts to disposable coffee cups, each year the U.S. alone produces some two billion pounds of Styrofoam—none of which can be recycled. Frustrated by this waste of resources and landfill space, Ashton Cofer and his science fair team developed a heating treatment to break down used Styrofoam into something useful. In essence, this group of young students found a way to recycle what adults (even experts) have assumed was impossible or just too expensive to recycle. Many states discourage Styrofoam cups or plates due to the fact that it takes some 500 years for that one-time use Styrofoam to disintegrate.
What I love about Ashton and his handful of friends is—they attacked this problem head on, even in the face of adults saying it couldn’t be done. And they succeeded.
The fact is—they did what they set out to do. Here are three reasons why:
1. They can see what we often cannot envision.
The older we get, the more our paradigms limit what we can see. Our mindset gets hardened, not unlike concrete. In fact, Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck tells us we developed a “fixed mindset” instead of a “growth mindset.” Our experience dictates what is possible and what is not. In Ashton’s case, he had a biased belief that there was a solution out there somewhere, when most of the adults in his circle assumed there was not. He did not let those who were “blind” to the possibilities prevent him from seeing the project through to completion. As a young, inexperienced teen he saw what others could not see.
2. They will attempt what we often believe is illogical.
Students have always seemed to have more energy than adults, which is why they often wear down their parents in arguments or outlast older folks with their tenacity. Ashton and his team of fellow students kept trying and failing, trying and failing. Admittedly, they almost gave up. But something inside of them pushed them to pursue what could be, when most adults discouraged them to continuing. After all, this had never been done before even though very smart people have theorized about it. Logic plays a smaller role in kids than it does adults. We become naysayers more quickly than young people do.
3. They can collaborate when we often only feel conflict.
Ashton was quick to include photos of the team he worked alongside and remind the audience it was a team effort. In fact, when one of the students was about ready to throw in the towel, another teammate would encourage and even incite the others to keep going. In other words, when the going got tough, it actually bonded the students together instead of driving them apart. Too often, we adults can’t seem to agree on particulars and immediately go to our corners, separating ourselves from each other philosophically. This refusal to flex or spur others on prevents us from overcoming obstacles.
Here’s a thought I’d like you to consider. Perhaps these students can teach us a lesson. Certainly, they need to mature into the wisdom that comes with adulthood. They have much to learn. But their ability to collaborate and compromise to reach a goal is a lesson for us who hide behind excuses like:
- I’ve got experience they don’t have and I know that won’t work.
- I refuse to compromise on my ideas or let someone else get the credit.
- I’m tired of putting forth effort when I know it will take too long to see results.
I’ll admit—it’s easy for me to hear some kid bring up an idea that seems completely illogical or unrealistic, and to “rain on their parade.” I feel the need to let them know how many others have tried to solve that problem or invent a gadget to accomplish that goal and why their idea won’t work. That reaction is usually not helpful. Even if they need to consider some other factors—at least they’re proposing an idea. Let’s celebrate their effort to achieve something.
In Ashton Cofer’s case—his idealistic notion actually worked.
Roy T. Bennett said, “Your hardest times often lead to the greatest moments of your life. Keep going. Tough situations build strong people in the end.” “There are five important things for living a successful and fulfilling life: never stop dreaming, never stop believing, never give up, never stop trying, and never stop learning.”
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