The Rivers School
“Where Does the Power Come From?”: Helping Students Find the Courage to Adapt
I was the chess champion of the sixth grade.
My grandmother had taught me how to play the game. Starting when I was in the third grade, she had patiently equipped me with a set of strategies — strategies that I employed with great success during my matches against elementary school classmates.
Looking back, I pretty much played the same game over and over and over again, using my small but tested toolkit of moves. They really worked!
Until they didn’t . . .
One day, I was challenged by an older, more experienced player. She moved a pawn, I moved mine in kind. She moved her bishop, and I positioned my knight. She moved her queen, and I kept my eye on taking out the bishop. Her fourth move? Checkmate.
I was stunned. She beat me in FOUR MOVES.
For a few days, I was convinced that I never wanted to play chess again. But then I did something smart: I talked to my dad. I told him what happened and how it felt. He listened empathetically and then explained the “four-move checkmate” strategy my opponent had employed. Playing more advanced players was an awesome opportunity to observe new strategies, he said, if I had the courage to learn from them and adapt.
I told this story to the middle school during our most recent Meta Monday. We were focused on the theme “Taking Action,” exploring how we can use feedback to move forward toward our goals. As I shared, taking action is pretty painless when tasks come easily. But when we are faced with a challenge, it takes a little something extra.
To explain this “something extra,” I showed the students a clip from one of my favorite movies, Chariots of Fire (you can watch the 2-minute clip here).
In 1923, the famed Scottish runner Eric Liddell was involved in a meet between England, Scotland, and Ireland. He had only run 10 feet in the 440 when another player clipped his foot, causing him to fall out of bounds. Liddell assumed this fall disqualified him from winning — and yet he got up and started to run again anyway, though he was a full 20 yards behind the pack. Against all odds, and to the amazement of everyone watching, he passed each runner and won with six yards to spare.
When I saw the movie as a kid, it was this scene that mesmerized me — not the gold medal race. As I shared with the students, Liddell really won the race the moment he got back up. He simply wasn’t willing to quit. He became a mental model for me of what commitment to a task looks like. Would I have such resolve, I wondered?
What does it take to develop such inner strength?
One answer comes from Liddell’s words in the film: “I have no formula for winning the race. Everyone runs in her own way, or in his own way. And where does the power come from to see the race to its end? From within.”
Taking action — moving toward our dreams, our hopes, and our goals — requires inner courage.
The courage to take the first step,
The courage to get up when we fall, and
The courage to adapt our strategies and approach.
Courage doesn’t mean we aren’t nervous or afraid or stressed out — it means that, even in the face of these emotions, we take a step toward our goals anyway.