Sticky Notes of Thoughts

…because some thoughts are worth remembering

On Aspiring for Excellence: Geek Points and Stickers


“The way to get things done is to stimulate competition. I do not mean in a sordid, money-getting way, but in the desire to excel.” ~Charles Schwab

I was fortunate to be able to teach at a prestigious prep school where integrity of the physical infrastructure, access to textbooks, parent engagement, was not an issue. The challenges the students faced in my Honors Physics class was that for many of them, it was the first time they got a grade on a lab report that wasn’t an A. With most of the students from a privileged background, they knew everything was up for negotiation. They would argue for a higher grade. It took me a long time for me to get their focus back on learning and striving for excellence for its sake rather than the goal of “getting an A”.

After getting complaints on the lab reports, I gave them a version I would give an A to. I had them compare their work with mine. After answering some of their questions with other questions, they started to get an idea. One of them even had a new insight about what they did in the lab caused a larger discrepancy than the theoretical result. “You get a geek point!” I said enthusiastically, and tore off a page from a FarSide daily calendar on my desk which hadn’t been neglected for some time, signed it and gave it to the student. The kid no longer cared about the B on the lab report, at least for the rest of the day.

I started giving geek points when they showed insight or initiative. I didn’t tell them what the points will get them, and they didn’t ask.

Having taught high school physics turned out to be a great preparation for managing a startup company. I had to be confident as a female leader in an all male department of alpha nerds. How can I earn their respect when I don’t know as much as they do in their field? How can I get them to honor deadlines when they bring up a thousand technical reasons why their projects can’t roll out in time yet again.

One day, someone completed a small task actually on time. “You get a sticker for completing the project on time,” I said, handing him a sticker of a polar bear from some junk mail I received. I think it was for a credit card offer, and how you can select the image you can get on your card by adhering the sticker on the response card. The next day, when I walked over to his desk, I saw the polar bear stuck on the frame of his monitor.

A few weeks went by, and I overheard a grumbling: something about how they had not yet received a sticker even though their task was completed on time. I realized it was now a thing. I went through my junk mail pile to see if I had another sticker to give out.

After I upgraded to actual star stickers, I overheard another grumbling. “Mine is better, because it’s blue.” apparently there is now a color code and a hierarchy of excellence. But I wasn’t prepared for what happened next. When I stashed out one of the star stickers to a system administrator who completed a project, he refused to accept it. “I am not satisfied with the way this project went. I know I could have done better,” he said. Would I instead allow him to work on a related project next time, and strive for the star for that project?

That’s geek pride.

It didn’t cost me a thing to hand out slips of FarSide cartoon calendar pages. It didn’t cost me a thing to give out stickers from junk mail. I just needed to acknowledge that I was paying attention and I caught them doing right.

Photo: Trying to tame a feral cat on the beach in Lanai, Hawaii


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This entry was posted on June 12, 2015 by in Management and tagged , , .
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