Crucial Skills®

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Kerrying On

Kerrying On: For the Want of a Wheel

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.

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14 thoughts on “Kerrying On: For the Want of a Wheel”

  1. Teresa

    Powerful message today!

  2. David

    Wow, what a great story, and a very motivating point. Thanks!

  3. Mike

    I too have struggled with my weight for decades – quiting smoking added the weight 25 years ago. I like what you are doing and am going to try it myself. Would you possibly share your list of foods and the activities you are using for exercise? And, thanks for your wonderful newsletter – I always find it inspriring.

  4. michael skinner

    you mention “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”

    what are “change strategies”

  5. Mark Heinze

    A wonderful article. It touches me on many levels and reminds us that small goals and mini-steps eventually add up. Thank you

  6. Sharon

    So true! And this concept applies to teams as well. It’s so easy to focus on the last, tie-breaking point, and honor the individual who brought the team to victory. But without all the points the entire team accumulated along the way, that last one wouldn’t be significant.
    Great message, Kerry, thank you!

  7. R Everett

    Well said! For me, it hearkens to learning music and all the individual practice techniques that eventually lead to a well crafted, moving performance.

  8. J Queen

    Wonderful article – not only are your personal stories enjoyable to read at face value, but the way you tie events together to convey a strong message is something that always inspires me. I regularly forward your articles to coworkers, family, and friends. Now I’m going to go and revisit some of my own life events that need just that final push to get me over the top and enjoy the satisfaction of reaching some of my goals!

  9. Elaine K. Weinkauf

    I am a 33 year friend of your partner Ron McMillan and I too am on the same diet, through the urging of his wife Bonnie. Now I have been overweight my whole life. I have also tried every diet in the world, just to gain the lost weight back…and then some. This time I have been successful. Why? There are several reasons. My diabetes and blood pressure was out of control and I was on 12 different meds. But, mostly, I was sick of being a failure at this important thing for the past 51 years of my life. My determination is winning, with the encouragement of my friends and family. I even put my own recent picture on my Facebook page! I am down 90 lbs from my highest weight, with 45 more to go. I can actually see the light at the end of the tunnel and I don’t think it’s a train, ready to crush all my hopes. I have also learned to speak positivly, even when I don’t exactly feel that way. I find that the positive reaction I receive from others lights a fire that keeps me going. I’ve never been married and I even feel that may be a possibility in my old age. Thanks for your article and great example!

  10. Jacalyn

    We want to see a picture of the “new you” Kerry! “You all” are (in?)famous in our family – just this week our 19 yr. old daughter needed to solve a problem with her (first ever) roommate. She phoned me – could I please ask Dad to tell her how to do a “Crucial Confrontation”? SECOND GENERATION CC’ers HERE!!!

  11. Hermine

    The article has inspired me to persevere! I too have sometimes stopped short of achieving my goals, especially if progress is slow or success seems unlikely.

  12. Tony Rodgers

    What an inspiring story. You are to be congratulated on your success. I wish not to take away from that significance but there’s a leadership precept I was challenged by as I read your story. I hope it will encourage others as well. You mentioned in both stories one person that proved to be the proverbial “straw that broke the camels back.” In your childhood it was your father and his lack of providing you that little extra assistance with your wheel. In you weight struggle it was your trainer that made all your other disciplines pay off. As I look at my employees I want to be the “straw” that helps them achieve success – that helps them taste victory – that allows them to experience synergy. May I never be “too busy” with the reports and administrative necessities that I fail to be the leader my employees need so they can “feel the wind in their hair.”

  13. Tweets that mention Crucial Skills » Kerrying On: For the Want of a Wheel --

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by James Neidlinger, FSBB Bullets. FSBB Bullets said: thx 2 my mate Clayton(the go 2 guy 4 supplement info)4 pointing me 2 ths article, awsm….do U have all the wheels on? […]

  14. Andrew Cahoon


    Great story – especially since I did build 3 different Soap Box Derby cars when I was a kid. None of these ever did much more than win 1 or 2 rounds, but it was the beginning of my love to build and create things with some level of complexity. My results did win me a “Best Designed Car” for my last year – that helped me to ultimately select a career in Engineering.

    Not all of my endeavors have had such success, so persistence is indeed something that I have developed as a core skill.

    Keep up the fine work !

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