Wednesday, May 7, 2014


If there was one thing that I could point to in order to explain why my mind works the way that it does—even if it only served to reinforce what was already there—it would be Odyssey of the Mind.

What was Odyssey of the Mind? For us less-articulate participants, it was referred to as OM. OM was an after school program where teams of 5-7 kids would solve various problems within a set of rules. Nothing special there, right? Not on the surface, anyway. But the one thing that made OM unique was the phrase “if it doesn't say you can't, then you can.” That, in and of itself, was the challenge. The encouragement was to find as many barriers as you could, get as close to them as you could without crossing them (or maybe go the other way altogether—your choice entirely), and solve a problem in the process.

As the years passed, my teams got better and better at this. But it didn't start out that way.

It seems relevant to note that OM teams were usually made up of the smart kids. At least that's what I was always told—that most schools only offered OM to the gifted kids. Thankfully for me, I went to a school that let anyone participate. By the time I arrived at a school where there were (in theory) standards, I'd established that I had value in OM beyond what my grades indicated.

Teams would usually form near the beginning of the school year and spend a few months working on their solutions. If I remember correctly, there was a regional competition in March, a state competition in April, and a world competition in May or June. Teams had to advance from each competition in order to move on—it seemed like three teams moved on from regional competitions, and then the winner of the state competition would move on to the world competition.

There were four age categories for teams to participate in: Division I was grades K-5; II was grades 6-8; III was grades 9-12; and IV was for college kids who didn't feel like stopping just because they were out of high school.

OM usually had five (or so) different problems for teams to participate in. Usually there was some “classics” (think Homer of Odyssey fame) problem in which teams had to create and perform a skit which would satisfy the problem's requirements in a creative way. Sound confusing? Here's the “classics” problem synopsis from 1994 (called Classics...The Iliad):
The team's problem is to create and present a performance of one scene chosen from a given list of scenes from the Iliad. The team will also present an historical scene that took place during the twentieth century that will include one or more gods and goddesses from the Iliad scene. The team must either present a transition between the scenes from the Iliad and the twentieth-century scene, or show some connection or relationship between the two. The team will also create one work of art that will be included in both scenes. Time limit: 8 min.
Good Lord. Did that make you want to stop reading after the first sentence? It always looked like a beauty pageant for smart kids to me.

One of the other problems usually involved some kind of car—whether it be a small model-sized car which would have to navigate a course and pop a bunch of balloons at the end of the course, or a car that could hold a person and do something...else. Here's the car problem synopsis from 1996 (Amusin' Cruisin'):
This problem requires teams to design, build and drive a vehicle on two journeys that will take a driver(s) to see "attractions" that are part of a team-created theme. In addition to transporting the driver(s) past, through or as part of the attractions, the vehicle will perform required and team-created tasks. Time limit: 8 min. 
Then there were the uncategorizable problems that involved doing random things. An example of one such problem from 1998 (Morph Magic):
The team is to create and present a humorous performance that includes a character who undergoes a morph from human to animal. In animal form, the character will find some plight of an animal that it will help or learn something to help it solve a human plight. The performance must also include a team-made device that will morph from its original appearance into something else. All of the team's props must fit inside a limited space. Time limit: 8 min.
And then there was the "structure problem." This was the problem that my teams always did—my first year, I wanted to do the car problem. Every year after that, it was me dragging everyone else into this problem. In the structure problem, teams had to build a structure out of balsa wood and put weights on it while performing a skit. Which sounds like a really odd combination. From 1998 (Crunch!):
This problem requires teams to design and build a structure of balsa wood and glue. The structure will be tested by balancing and supporting as much weight as possible while undergoing a series of billiard ball impacts. Time limit: 8 min.
From 1992-2001, this was the problem category that my teams participated in. Spoiler alert: that first year, our structure (which I built) held literally nothing. It wasn't the best way to start what would be a nine year involvement, but it was part of the learning process—and I would say that I learned more from OM than I did from any other activity or program (including school) in those years. The number one thing I learned was the following, which applies quite well outside of OM: the winner is usually the one who best defines the problem, because whoever best defines the problem will then be able to use the available resources in the most focused manner. You don't have to be a genius in order to succeed at anything; you just have to be willing to define your problems.