Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.
When I was a boy, only a handful of rich families had access to a television—or the newscasts that came with it. Consequently, the local movie theaters (which our family attended as often as three times a week) showed a newsreel at the beginning of each double feature. These ten-minute news clips updated audiences on everything from sports scores to changes in the war effort.
It was during just such a theater-hosted news broadcast that I first became aware of the Soap Box Derby. According to a newsreel that came on just before the MGM lion roared, boys “from all walks of life” would gather each year in Akron, Ohio and compete for prizes by building and racing a gravity-driven race car. After watching a young man leap triumphantly from his wooden vehicle, whip off his nifty-looking goggles, and claim a cash award, I wanted a soap box car of my very own. I craved one of my own. And why shouldn’t I compete? I certainly qualified. I was a boy. I was from some sort of walk of life. I could be a winner.
Of course, qualifying for the race was one matter, acquiring an actual soap box racer was an entirely different matter. This was the early fifties and our family was hardly flush with such things as wood, wheels, axles, paint, and tools. In fact, I didn’t even own a bike or pair of skates. That meant I couldn’t build a gravity-driven car, as most boys did, by piecing together parts from cast-off vehicles because we never had anything to cast off.
Nevertheless, this was a soap box derby and soap boxes could be found at a junk yard—which was kind of where I lived in the first place. Our humble neighborhood was knee-deep in junk. With a little luck, I would one day be hurling down a northeastern Ohio hillside in a vehicle of my own making. All I had to do was find the right junk and fashion it into my very own derby car.
At first, the task turned out to be fairly easy. Previous neighbors had built a tree house in the woods behind our house and since it had long ago fallen into disrepair I tore down the eyesore and scrounged a few two-by-fours to make up my chassis. Next, I pulled out and straightened old nails I found in boards left around empty lots. It only took me a couple of days to marry nails and lumber into a frame and when I eventually found an old soap box and secured it onto the frame; I had the makings of a race car.
But wheels were going to be a problem. The dumps I visited had been stripped of anything as valuable as wheels. Eventually, I begged four odd-sized wagon wheels from four different friends and ran a large nail through the center of each—the wheels, that is, not the friends. Then I hammered the nails into the end of the former tree-house two-by-fours that now crisscrossed the chassis. The only problem was that one of the two-by-four ends contained a huge knot so I couldn’t hammer the nail into it. Try as I might, it just bent the nail. I eventually borrowed a bigger hammer but that did nothing but take a large chunk out of the lumber. So there my potential award-winning vehicle sat in our basement—a complete soap box car—minus one wheel.
For the next few weeks, I begged my dad to help me nail in that last wheel. But he never got around to it. His job at the plant was physically taxing, it was a hot summer, and he just didn’t have any energy left over for nailing together a soap box derby car. “I’ll get to it later,” he’d say each day as he slowly climbed the stairs from our basement garage.
But Dad didn’t get to it later. My race car sat in our basement completely finished—minus one wheel. When I came home from school each day I’d walk by my three-wheeled contrivance and be reminded that we were poor, Dad wasn’t exactly a handy man, I didn’t finish the job I had started (something my mom was quick to point out), and I’d never get to feel the wind rushing through my hair.
I protected my homely little vehicle until the next spring when the rains subsided and I hoped I’d have another chance to race in the derby. But a boy can only hold onto a newsreel vision for so long. So, one day, when my older brother Bill needed a piece of rope, he took it off the steering mechanism of my car, and I didn’t even put up a fuss. I had let go of my dream. A couple weeks later, I detached the wooden soap box to use as a control module on the stove-pipe “rocket ship” I was now making in the back yard. Then, I stripped away the remaining lumber to be used as fuel for the rocket ship’s inaugural flight. Eventually, all that remained of my dream car was four wheels—bitter reminders of a job never finished.
I hadn’t thought of this particular disappointment in decades. But last week, I was reminded of that soap box derby car while standing on our bathroom scale and seeing a number I hadn’t tipped since I was in my mid 30s (I’d lost the equivalent of an nine-year-old boy). You see, I had been trying to shed weight for more than twenty years, but had never made any progress. Like most people attempting to lose weight, I’d experience some success with various diets, but then regain the weight and put my health at further risk.
Eventually, after yo-yoing for decades, I settled on the notion that if I was going to make heroic efforts to lose weight by suffering all the while, I’d never be able to keep it up. So I decided to find healthier, less sugary and fatty foods that I actually enjoyed eating. Next, I learned how to eat smaller, less caloric meals to avoid being hungry so often. Then I started exercising by engaging in activities I actually enjoyed. Next came weighing myself daily followed by learning which restaurants carried healthy food I liked, and so forth. As the months rolled on, board by board I cobbled together my very own soap box diet plan. And like the original homemade vehicle from my youth, my plan remained incomplete and unsuccessful for quite a long time.
Then one day, I decided to seek help from a trainer who taught me correct exercise techniques and offered me constant encouragement. Soon I was shedding pounds. In fact, I’m now halfway to my goal (eventually, I need to lose the equivalent of a twelve-year-old).
Why was I finally successful after so many failures? It would be easy to credit the trainer. It would also be wrong. Every sensible thing I had done up until that point was an important part of my success. I really did have to find healthy foods I like, learn how to navigate restaurants, calculate my daily caloric intake, and so forth.
It turns out that, as with my race-car building, when it came to my health goals, I had done most of what I needed to do, but hadn’t quite reached critical mass. The tactics I had employed hadn’t been wrong, they just hadn’t been enough. As was the case with my derby car, I had been one wheel short of success. In my case, including one more change strategy—finding a trainer—put me over the top. But it was the trainer, plus everything else I had already done, that ultimately led to my success.
Now I’m left wondering how many other times in my life have I completed most of what I needed to do in order to succeed, but failed to achieve my objective for lack of one more technique or change strategy. How many times have I been one wheel short? The thought of putting in 90 percent of the work only to enjoy—not 90 percent but precious little of the benefits—gave me the willies.
I know from recent research conducted at VitalSmarts that when people use four or more change strategies when trying to reach a goal, they are four times more likely to succeed than those who use three or fewer. At the corporate level, the same research team learned that when leaders move from implementing just a couple of influence techniques to using four or more, they increase their chances of success by a factor of ten. This encouraging data certainly supports the idea that when you’re faced with challenging and persistent problems, you need to add to and adjust your plans until you eventually break through to success.
So, today I offe
r a message of hope. If you’ve tried to solve a problem in your personal life or within your company but have come up short, maybe you’re closer than you think. Maybe you’re about to break through to success. Look at your latest barrier, add one more influence strategy to your current plan and see what happens. Chances are you’re just one wheel away from the feeling the wind in your hair.